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Regulating the Regulators

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I am a big fan of Howard Stern. Anyone who knows me knows that I have been listening to Howard for a long time. 11 years, to be exact. The first time I ever listened to Howard Stern I was riding the school bus with a Walkman and flipped through the radio dial until I heard Flava Flav, the wacky member of Public Enemy. At the time, I was 14 and a huge fan of Public Enemy’s album, “Apocalypse ’91: The Enemy Strikes Black” so hearing Flava Flav was something I wanted to listen to. From that point on, I have listened to the show quite frequently. At points in my life, I have listened every single day. 11 years. Needless to say, I am a fan. I just needed to be up front with that.

Trust me when I tell you that I know a lot about the show. Yesterday, Clear Channel Communications radio conglomerate pulled Howard Stern’s show off of the air in 6 markets including Pittsburgh, Orlando, San Diego and others. This decision is within the rights of Clear Channel, obviously, but this story goes a little bit deeper than Clear Channel making a judgement call on decency. It just so happens that one of the higher-ups at Clear Channel, John Hogan, had to appear before Congress yesterday for an indecency hearing. Is this just a bit coincidental that this is the same day that his company pulled Stern from the air? I don’t think so. Now, lets meet the rest of the players.

The Sheriff – Played by The FCC

The Federal Communications Commission is the regulatory commission in charge of the public airwaves in this country. They take complaints that people might have and they also levy punishments against broadcasters who have done things wrong.

Michael Powell (Colin’s son) the head of the FCC has proposed to raise the maximum fine for indecency tenfold from $27,500. According to Powell, the current maximum fine is not enough to dissuade broadcasters from broadcasting indecent material. The funny thing is that I agree that the fine amount is not enough to be persuasive to these huge conglomerates. That is, of course, if they are never handed down.

The FCC doesn’t do anything pro-actively and frequently doesn’t hand out any fines at all. Now all of a sudden, given the Janet Jackson thing, the government and the FCC have found themselves under the gun a little bit and they are now responding. This isn’t how things are supposed to work. By not enforcing rules that have been there for a long time on something as subjective as “decency,” it is almost the same thing as saying that material is acceptable for the airwaves. Now that there have been no fines over the course of time, you can’t all of a sudden make scapegoats of broadcasters who have been doing the same thing for the last five years.

The Outlaws

Opie and Anthony
There have been some examples of broadcasters who have been punished for activities. Opie and Anthony were pulled off the air last year when they had an explicit contest with listeners who had to have sex in public places around New York City for “points.” When one of the couples got caught in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the hammer was dropped on Opie and Anthony because they encouraged someone to do something illegal and then broadcasted it. I must say that I was listening that day and thought it was one of the most entertaining and funny shows I have ever listened to, probably because of the shock value. That being said, I don’t question the decision to fire those guys. They encouraged someone to do something illegal and broadcasted it. I loved that show and I wish it was still on, but I know that isn’t right.

Bubba the Love Sponge
Then the case of “Bubba the Love Sponge” happened in the last week. I don’t know who “Bubba the Love Sponge” is, and I have never heard the show, but he was fired last week after accruing a $755,000 fine based on the complaints of one man to the FCC. I have heard about some of the antics of “Bubba” and maybe some reprimanding was in order.

The Snitch

There is a bigger problem here with the way the FCC works. Obviously the FCC can’t monitor all shows all the time. I don’t think anybody in his or her right mind would expect such a thing. They should be using a different system for determining where and when fines should be levied. After digging through some articles about the “Bubba” firing, I found that the action by the FCC was brought on by the complaining of a single person, Douglas Vanderlaan, who has been on a three year crusade to try and get the FCC to do something about the “Bubba” program.


    Douglas Vanderlaan is a scientist by profession, and a dad who’s top priority is caring for his two sons. Three years ago, he listened to Clear Channel’s ‘Planet Radio’ in Jacksonville, in the middle of a “Bubba the Love Sponge” show featuring a porn-star who went on to give listeners the web address of her personal site.
    “The more I listened, the more irresponsible content I heard,” said Vanderlaan. “I just felt this sense of purpose when I first heard that radio broadcast. I thought, ‘somebody ought to do something. Why not me’.”
    So Vanderlaan recorded several ‘Bubba’ shows, and joined forces with a broadcast attorney in Washington, D.C., to file a formal complaint with the FCC. That complaint eventually resulted in the $755,000 fine.
    For Vanderlaan, news of Bubba’s firing is seen as a gracious victory.

As you can see, a single person has determined the definition of “decency” for a whole lot of people. Doesn’t this seem like a flawed system, where a single person can determine what should happen for a whole group of people?

Howard Stern

With all these things in mind, Clear Channel removed Howard Stern’s program a day after a caller used THE racial epithet that is most offensive to African Americans. After the caller used the word, Stern hung up on the caller and asked another question. Is it enough to not condone the word? Should the word have never hit the airwaves? I am not the person to answer that question. I am also not the person to determine it for other people.

This is my point. I understand that maybe we have a problem that needs a solution. I understand that when an issue becomes hot it has to get overdone by politicians and other groups in this country. It is the way of the world in the United States today. But, why can’t we ever do things slowly and strategically? We always need to give that instant gratification to the few people who complain the loudest, so we start doing heart surgery, with a hammer and screws.

There are people who complain about the Howard Stern show. There are people who don’t complain and decide not to listen to the show. There are people who like the show and won’t admit it. What would you guess the population distribution is in this case? Seeing as Stern is number one in the majority of the markets that he is/was broadcasting in, which group is in the majority? The complainers? Yet, they are the ones who are determining what everyone else gets to listen to.

There is definitely a problem in this country in relation to the public airwaves. Something occasionally needs to be done about what is broadcasted over the airwaves. Before that can happen effectively, we need a better way to determine problems, come up with solutions and ultimately regulate these airwaves.

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About Craig Lyndall