Seemingly on the ropes and neck-deep in fines, syndicated radio giant Howard Stern vowed to fight on Wednesday morning, announcing that he is not headed for the FCC-free waters of satellite radio, but rather will keep his show right where it is, and will in fact expand into nine new markets.
"We are going to fight back," Stern told reporters of his decision to keep his politically embattled (but wildly popular) show afloat. Stern's show will return to new stations in six markets — Pittsburgh; West Palm Beach, Florida; San Diego; Rochester, New York; Orlando, Florida; and Houston — where Clear Channel Communications-owned stations had pulled the plug on the show earlier this year, and will also expand to Austin, Texas; Tampa, Florida; and Fresno, California. The new stations that will air Stern's show are all owned by Infinity Broadcasting, which syndicates the jock's show (Infinity is owned by Viacom, which also owns MTV).
On the surface, it's a big piece of broadcasting news, but to those who have done their homework, it's also a significant political development. A onetime supporter of President Bush, Stern has changed his tune in recent months, raising his discontent about the president's policies on Iraq, stem-cell research, gay marriage, and censorship from grumblings to an all-out "radio jihad" against Bush's administration.
Stern has said that he will do whatever he can to ensure that Bush is not re-elected, and has devoted considerable airtime to the topic for an audience of more than 8 million each week. Recent polls indicate that his pull in the upcoming election may be larger than some would expect; it's estimated that four percent of all voters in the upcoming election are undecided swing voters who regularly listen to Stern's show, a substantial margin in a race that, thus far, remains tight. Research also indicates that they are concerned about the economy and are leaning toward Kerry. Some have even said that Stern will have a greater influence on the upcoming election than Ralph Nader, who is running again this time after pulling considerable votes away from the two major candidates in 2000's closely contested election (see "Does Howard Stern Have More Political Muscle Than Ralph Nader?").
As Stern himself put it, "John Kerry will receive more votes as a result of this."
Specifically, the radio titan was thrilled to return to major markets in key election battleground states like Pennsylvania and Florida.
Beyond Stern's opposition to Bush's policies, the personality's discontent is further fueled by the renewed attack he has faced from the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates broadcasters and broadcast indecency. The FCC has fined Stern's show and the companies that carry it close to $3 million this year, and Congress is working on legislation that would fine individual entertainers for indecent remarks.
Stern says that those steep fines and proposed changes in legislation have had a "chilling effect" on free speech, and charges the FCC with staging a "witch hunt," noting that the commission's fines have been handed down for shows broadcast several years ago and not current content.
He also alleges that it's not the "indecent" content of his show, but rather its political content that has made him a target. Specifically, he claims that Clear Channel Communications dumped his show shortly after he began bashing Bush on a regular basis. Clear Channel Chairman and CEO Lowry Mays has long been a supporter of Bush, but the company said at the time that the show had "created a great liability for us and other broadcasters who air it" (see "Howard Stern Broadcast Costs Clear Channel Nearly $500,000").
"This is a joke and a smokescreen that it's about sex," Stern said on Wednesday (June 30). "I dared to go on the air and say that I do not support George W. Bush, I support John Kerry ... all of a sudden, Clear Channel took me off the air in six markets. When you criticize the president, you get thrown off the air."
Clear Channel has denied that the move was politically motivated, but Stern is still eager to battle the company that dropped his show.
"I'm not taking this lying down. I'm going to kick their ass," he boasted.