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Broadcast giant takes whack at shock radio

Stern off the air here but not everywhere

Friday, February 27, 2004

By Adrian McCoy, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Shock radio is getting its mouth washed out with a heavy-duty bar of soap -- not as expected by the guardians at the Federal Communications Commission but by the nation's top radio conglomerate.


Associated Press
Howard Stern ... off the air in Pittsburgh.

In the space of two days, Clear Channel Radio removed two controversial shock jocks from its airwaves and announced a tough stance on indecent material.

The popular syndicated Howard Stern show was pulled from six Clear Channel stations, including Pittsburgh's WXDX-FM (105.9), Wednesday, hours after the company unveiled a new "zero tolerance" policy on indecent material.

Yesterday morning, WXDX aired its "new rock" music format in place of Stern's show and will continue to do so indefinitely.

Although widely syndicated across the country's major markets, Stern is carried on only six of Clear Channel's 1,200 stations: Pittsburgh, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Orlando, Fla., Rochester, N.Y., San Diego and Louisville, Ky.

The show is distributed by Infinity Broadcasting and airs on 40 other stations, about half of them owned by Infinity. Infinity owns four stations in Pittsburgh: KDKA-AM, WBZZ-FM, WDSY-FM and WZPT-FM.

Infinity announced its own zero-tolerance policy on offensive material last week. Its parent company, Viacom, is under fire for the Janet Jackson-Justin Timberlake halftime "wardrobe malfunction" at the Super Bowl last month.

Stern's absence on the local airwaves resulted in a traffic jams on WXDX's switchboard with calls from listeners complaining about -- and some commending -- the change. Callers were referred to Clear Channel national headquarters, and told it was a "national decision."

"The content of Howard Stern's program is not in compliance with the FCC's content standards. Until the program provider makes those adjustments, we will be unable to air 'The Howard Stern Show,' " said Clear Channel regional Vice President John Rohm of WXDX's suspension of Stern's broadcasts. Rohm deferred further comment to Clear Channel corporate management in San Antonio.

The company said Stern's suspension stemmed from comments made on Tuesday's show during an interview with socialite Paris Hilton's former boyfriend and sex video co-star Rick Solomon. The segment contained an unedited racial slur from a caller and Stern's graphic questions about Solomon's alleged sexual experiences.

"Clear Channel drew a line in the sand today with regard to protecting our listeners from indecent content and Howard Stern's show blew right through it," said Clear Channel Radio President and Chief Executive Officer John Hogan. "It was vulgar, offensive and insulting, not just to women and African Americans but to anyone with a sense of common decency."

The day before, Clear Channel dropped controversial morning host Todd Clem, better known as Bubba the Love Sponge. His program does not air in Pittsburgh.

Stern's show was picked up here in 1995, and remains one of the most listened-to morning shows among 25- to 54-year-olds -- in second place for five out of the last six Arbitron ratings periods. Among total listeners, it has been No. 3 during morning drive time for most of the last year and a half.

Stern's suspension could affect other Clear Channel stations here, such as rock station WDVE-FM, new rock WXDX and contemporary hits station WKST-FM that are targeted to young listeners and feature sometimes raunchy material.

WDVE hosts Jim Krenn and Randy Baumann addressed the issue on yesterday's show, telling listeners that while they don't plan to lose their edge, they do have to be more careful in terms of language and how it's used.

"No more scantily clad F-bombs," as Krenn put it.

Stern may or may not come back, but the debate won't be going away soon.

Christian station WORD-FM talk host Marty Minto has used his show on several occasions to draw attention to and criticize offensive radio promotions, urging listener and advertiser boycotts. He said the Clear Channel move is "in line with what the American people, the listenership wants. I think Clear Channel is doing what they have to do. They're kind of forced to take a stand.

"My hope and prayer is across the board radio will begin to see a real cleanup of the acts out there."

WEAE-AM/ESPN 1250 sports talk host Mark Madden begged to differ, calling the muzzling of Stern "ridiculous."

"Radio conglomerates underestimate their audience's ability to discern what they find personally offensive and to turn the dial," Madden said.

The suspension gave Stern plenty of ammo for one of his trademark morning show diatribes. What Pittsburgh listeners didn't hear yesterday was Stern's only public comment on the matter.

"The thing I just don't like about Clear Channel being forced to suspend me is that it makes it seem like I did something wrong on Tuesday," Stern said during the broadcast. "They are being forced to say that I did something wrong. ... A caller called in and used the 'n' word, and I hung up on him. ... I'm so tired of this."

Stern took calls from disconnected Pittsburgh listeners, and lashed out against the Republicans and the Bush administration and "Fear Channel." He said these could be "the last days of the Howard Stern Show ... spontaneity and creativity must be dangerous things." He also offered to appear in front of Congress and "apologize for being a 'visionary broadcaster.' "

The latter comment referred to Hogan's testimony at a House subcommittee hearing on decency in broadcasting, during which he apologized for the Bubba program, which recently drew $755,000 in FCC fines.

Under the new zero tolerance policy, Clear Channel on-air talent who are slapped by the FCC for offensive material will face immediate suspension and share the cost of any fines.

Material many find offensive is pervasive on radio. A look at the WXDX Web site to see if it had any explanation about Stern's absence revealed "Thong of the Day," a collection of photographs of barely clad women.

The FCC defines as offensive, however, any material referring to sexual and excretory functions that airs between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., theoretically when children might be listening. The FCC Web site -- www.fcc.gov/parents/ -- provides guidelines and definitions on what constitutes indecency in broadcasting, along with instructions on how to file a complaint.

Penalties for stations range from revoking licenses or withholding license renewals, to fines and warnings.

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