Howard Stern Broadcast Costs Clear Channel Nearly $500,000

Broadcast of 'indecent' material leads company to pull the plug on show; Stern complains of 'witch hunt.'

The Federal Communications Commission lobbed another volley in its war against Howard Stern on Thursday, levying almost half a million dollars in forfeitures against Clear Channel Communications for broadcasting allegedly "indecent" material from Stern's syndicated daily radio show on its stations.

The FCC hit Clear Channel with $495,000 in proposed forfeitures for content broadcast in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida; Cocoa Beach, Florida; Louisville, Kentucky; Honeoye Falls, New York; San Diego; and Pittsburgh.

In its ruling, the FCC said it determined that material that aired as part of Stern's April 9, 2003, broadcast included "repeated, graphic and explicit sexual descriptions that were pandering, titillating or used to shock the audience."

A listener in Ft. Lauderdale complained about the show, and although the complaint only involved that station, the commission determined there were three indecency violations during the program. Clear Channel was penalized for all six of its stations that aired the show, for a total of 18 citations.

Thursday's move prompted Clear Channel to permanently pull the plug on Stern's show. Earlier this year, the broadcaster had shelved Stern's show in the six markets where Clear Channel was carrying it, calling it a suspension that would last until Stern cleaned up his act.

"Mr. Stern's show has created a great liability for us and other broadcasters who air it," said John Hogan, president and CEO of Clear Channel Radio, in a statement issued Thursday. "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," Hogan said.

"We had hoped to return Mr. Stern's show to the air free from indecent content [after the suspension]," the statement continued. "Unfortunately, the FCC's latest action, combined with deafening silence from the Stern show on their future plans to comply with the law, leave us no choice but to abandon the program for good."

Stern's show is carried in more than 30 markets around the country. The total penalty represents the maximum $27,500 fine for each of 18 separate violations.

"For the first time, the commission assesses a fine against more than a single utterance, rather than counting an entire program as one utterance," FCC Chairman Michael Copps said in a statement announcing the ruling.

In a statement published on his Web site, Howard Stern said, "This is not a surprise. This is a follow-up to the McCarthy-type 'witch hunt' of the administration and the activities of this group of presidential appointees in the FCC, led by 'Colin Powell Jr.' and his band of players. 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.' "

Technically not a fine, an FCC "proposed forfeiture" asks a company to forfeit money for violating FCC regulations. A company has 30 days to challenge a proposed forfeiture, and if the company fails to act within that period of time, the FCC enlists the aid of the Justice Department to collect the requested funds.

The latest penalty comes on the heels of a ruling last month in which the FCC hit Infinity Broadcasting, which produces Stern's show, with a forfeiture of $27,500 (see "FCC Reverses Ruling On Bono Profanity, Hits Howard Stern With Maximum Penalty"). MTV's parent company, Viacom, also owns Infinity.

Thursday's ruling is just the latest exchange in Stern's ongoing battle with both the FCC and President George W. Bush's administration. Stern claims the FCC has never set clear guidelines for determining what is offensive, and he accuses Bush of "pushing the agenda of the religious right" (see "Does Howard Stern Have More Political Muscle Than Ralph Nader?"). The FCC states that it uses "contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium" in determining what is offensive.

The FCC ruling comes as Congress weighs legislation that would increase the maximum penalty for indecency violations from $27,500 to $500,000 per incident.

This story was updated on 04.09.2004 at 11:25 a.m. ET