LOS ANGELES — It might have looked like a typical protest rally if not for the legion of men in long curly wigs and circular sunglasses.
Hundreds of Howard Stern listeners and free-speech supporters gathered in front of the Federal Building on Friday (March 19) to protest the Federal Communications Commission's indecency crackdown and support the shock jock's radio assault on President George W. Bush.
More than 500 demonstrators held signs and chanted "Free Howard." Hours earlier, Stern had been fined $27,500 by the FCC for a July 2001 broadcast deemed "lewd" (see "FCC Reverses Ruling On Bono Profanity, Hits Howard Stern With Maximum Penalty").
Stern, who has supported Bush in the past, is blaming the fine's timing on his recent verbal onslaughts criticizing Bush for his stand on such issues as same-sex marriage (see "Does Howard Stern Have More Political Muscle Than Ralph Nader?").
"We're here to support Howard because what's going on with the FCC is completely wrong," said Gary Garver, a correspondent for "The Howard Stern Show" and Los Angeles' 97.1 KLSX-FM, who organized the protest. "Howard has a real intelligent audience. It's not just derelicts and kids. They know what's going on. And look around, it's an eclectic crowd."
Eclectic indeed. Stern advocates of various sexes, races and ages — from toddlers to elders — were lined along Wilshire Boulevard on Friday, listening to Stern's show on small radios and encouraging drivers-by to honk in support.
Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jay Leno impersonators joined the Stern look-alikes. There was a man in Kiss makeup and a dog covered in "Free Speech" stickers. A group of entrepreneurs sold T-shirts bearing the slogan "Got Freedom of Speech?" and Stern's mug on a milk carton.
The equally diverse picket signs ranged from "Freedom of Speech," "F the FCC" and "Howard Is a Hero" to paragraphs comparing Janet Jackson's boob to "the boob running the White House."
An older man held two signs, one completely blank. "I had the cure for AIDS on my other sign, but George Bush stifled me," read the other.
A woman named Socorro picketed on a high-traffic corner while her two daughters looked on from their stroller.
"I'm here with my kids because I want them to know we were out here trying, that we did our part to protest," she said. "I don't think it's going to stop with Howard Stern. He's just a stepping-stone. Next thing you know, we're going to have to listen to what they consider right. They're nobody to tell me who I can and can't listen to."
Socorro was one of several protesters attacking Bush, whom Stern has accused of "pushing the agenda of the religious right."
"Bush went to Iraq to protect those people from having their country run by religion, and now he's doing that to us," she said. "We're being run by his religion. Whether or not I agree with his religion is not the point. We're not a country run by religion."
As Rock the Vote workers registered voters, numerous Stern supporters said they planned to go to the polls against Bush.
"There's a lot of people out there, including myself, who probably wouldn't vote," said Garver, who has worked for Stern's show for 12 years. "But now — guess what? — we're all gonna be voting. There's going to be a snowball effect. It's only March. Come November, watch out."
Tanya Volz, a 20-something Republican from Orange County, said she's considering voting Democrat in the election.
"The separation of church and state is really important, and the fact that Bush is bringing so much church into the government is ridiculous," she said. "We need to get out and vote and save our First Amendment."
"It's getting pretty scary," added college-age Jeff Oderlin. "There's a religiously oppressive government trying to impose their morals on us through the FCC. I'm ready to fight as long as I need to."
Rachel Godfrey, who took the day off from work to join the protest, shared her solution to the FCC's decency outcry.
"I'm a longtime listener, and I admit Stern pushes the envelope," she said. "But like my mom said, I can turn the dial. What I find indecent are these Christian stations talking about the devil and how I'm going to hell."
Congress is weighing legislation that would up the maximum penalty for indecency violations from $27,500 to $500,000 per incident.