FCC proposes record $495,000 fine over Stern show. For the first time, station owners are fined for each offensive utterance in a show

By Gary Susman
April 09, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT

Three comments about oral and anal sex on a Howard Stern broadcast a year ago could cost radio giant Clear Channel nearly half a million dollars in fines. The radio chain, which suspended its broadcasts of Stern’s morning show on six stations in February after a broadcast the company said contained indecent and racist comments by a caller, dropped Stern for good on Thursday after the Federal Communications Commission proposed a $495,000 fine over the April 2003 broadcast, which occurred six days after the FCC warned that it would start fining broadcasters not just for each offensive show, but for each offensive utterance on a show. The proposed fine, a record for a single broadcast, is actually 18 fines (three comments times the six Clear Channel stations that aired the show) of $27,500 — the maximum current fine per offense.

According to the Washington Post, the initial complaint came from a listener of Clear Channel’s Fort Lauderdale station, but the FCC expanded its probe of the incident to include the company’s other stations airing Stern, in San Diego, Pittsburgh, Orlando, Louisville, and Rochester, N.Y. The New York Times reports that the FCC is also considering imposing fines on Infinity, Stern’s employer and the syndicator of his show, which still airs on 18 Infinity-owned stations and 17 others. Clear Channel hasn’t said whether it would appeal the fines (it has 30 days to do so), but the company, which has been hit with two other six-figure fines over DJ indecency this year, was quick to ensure that Stern would never darken its airwaves again. ”Mr. Stern’s show has created a great liability for us and other broadcasters who air it,” Clear Channel chief John Hogan said in a statement explaining the decision. ”The Congress and the FCC are even beginning to look at revoking station licenses. That’s a risk we’re just not willing to take.”

It hasn’t been lost on Stern and his fans that the increased federal scrutiny of his show comes at a time when broadcasters are facing increasing penalties for indecency in the wake of the Janet Jackson incident (for instance, Congress has proposed multiplying indeceny fines tenfold to $275,000), and at a time when his own on-air views have turned sharply against the Bush administration, to which Clear Channel has close ties. The vacationing jock didn’t broadcast on Thursday, but he issued a statement calling the fines part of the administration’s ”McCarthy type ‘witch hunt.”’ He added: ”This is not a surprise. It is pretty shocking that governmental interference into our rights and free speech takes place in the U.S. It’s hard to reconcile this with the ‘land of the free’ and the ‘home of the brave.”’