An Indecent Amount of Fuss Over Shock Radio's Outbursts

March 14, 2004

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IS RADIO under siege?

If you're Bubba the Love Sponge, the recently unemployed Tampa DJ whose show was assessed $715,000 in Federal Communications Commission fines, you'd probably think so. Ditto if you're Clear Channel, Bubba's former bosses, or you're over at Infinity, where Howard Stern is awaiting FCC fines. Clear Channel also dropped Stern's show from six of its stations.

As radio indecency bills make their way through the House and the Senate, we figured it was time to get some perspective on this issue. After all, if NBC affiliates were spared punishment by check when Bono uttered the f-word during a Golden Globes telecast last year, why does your morning rock jock merit attention for raunchy chat? The House bill even proposes fines of $275,000 per indecent act, which penalties going as high as $3 million. The top fine now is $27,500.

"It's ironic," said Fred Jacobs of Jacobs Media, a radio consulting firm based in Detroit. "We're talking two days before 'The Sopranos' season five makes its debut (pay cable is not regulated by the FCC), and we all know what's going to be involved with that. But God forbid someone says, 'a--' on morning radio because the show will be fined $250,000."

"It's very interesting that this is all happening in an election year," Alex DeMers, a Philadelphia-based programming consultant said, laughing. "I just woke up to that possibility."

Demers contended radio and TV are being held to different standards. "There have only been three fines (from the FCC) against TV in the history of the agency. I think this is a witch hunt."

The most recent TV fine was assessed to San Francisco TV station KRON. One of the cast members of the show "Puppetry of the Penis" flashed one of the "puppets" briefly on live TV in 2002. The station was fined $27,500. In 2001, WTXF-TV in Philadelphia showed nudity during a morning newscast, but was not fined.

Robert Unmacht, a media consultant and founder of iN3 Partners in Nashville, said the indecency flap only affects a small portion of the industry.

"Most of this is dealing with people trying to attract male listeners 18-34. Modern rock is a huge component of that," Unmacht said. "You're not hearing complaints about mix stations, news talk stations or country stations. The problem is mostly with rock formats, but not all of them."

As for Stern being dropped by the Clear Channel outlets, Unmacht thinks that was as much a matter of economics as content.

"A small station might see Stern as a ticket to ratings success, but his price tag in small markets can be as much as $500,000. With that price, there's no profit even with good ratings."

Sean Ross of Edison Media Research of Somerville said that Sept. 11 may have briefly slowed some broadcasters' pursuit of increasingly edgy material. Radio was needed to console the community, not provoke it, he wrote on Edison's Web site.

But that didn't last long, Ross said. "No long after that, you had Opie and Anthony and the (couple reportedly having sex in) St. Patrick's thing (which happened in August 2002), then some other stunts."

Ross did say, however, that the whole contretemps was an overreaction.

"Not only in the sense that there aren't that many shock jocks per capita, but also because in this post- 'Sex and the City,' post-'Sopranos' world, what adults will tolerate has clearly changed. There are people who want to shield their children from this stuff, but there are as many who are comfortable with edgier material."

Is there really a public outcry about shock jocks and radio? You be the judge. The FCC received 530,885 indecency complaints so far this year. But 530,828 were from Janet Jackson's Super Bowl bust out. Total remaining complaints -- 57.

"If Janet Jackson isn't the world's greatest example of a tipping point, I don't know what is," DeMers said.

End of an era:

Alistair Cooke gave his last "Letter from America" on BBC Radio on Feb. 20. Cooke, 95, had done 2,869 of the essay broadcasts over 58 years. BBC Radio is airing some of Cooke's old broadcasts for the next few weeks. If you're a night owl, you can catch them on WNYC (820 AM) at 9 p.m. and midnight weekdays.

Grooves on the move:

Rafe Gomez, proprietor of WQCD's "Groove Boutique," has seen the popular mix show moved up an hour on Saturday nights. You can now hear the Boutique from 10 p.m. to midnight instead of 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. For those who can't stay up late or are out making their own mix on the weekends, CD101 (101.9 FM) debuts "Groove Boutique Blend" at 5 p.m. weekdays.

Marathon time:

This week marks the last week of the WFMU (91.1 FM) Radio Marathon. If you want to pledge to help out the eclectic, noncommercial station, call (800) 989-9386 or point your Web browser to If you pledge more than $60, you can get a variety of items from different shows. It's worth noting that Laura Cantrell's "Radio Thrift," which airs Saturdays from noon to 3 p.m., celebrates its 10th year on the air. The show is a must for fans of vintage and alt-country.

Program notes:

WNTI (91.9 FM) will holds its Calvacade of Stars Membership Drive Concert at 7 p.m. March 27 at Centenary Theater in Hackettstown.

Performers include John Sheehan, Kathy Phillips, the Blue Ribbon Cloggers, Quarter Moon, Jodee James, Still River Band, and Barbeque Bob & The Spareribs. Tickets are $20. Call (908) 852-4545.

The Museum of Radio and Television hosts "1964: The Times They Are a-Changin,'" a symposium on Bob Dylan that will be broadcast from 7 to 9 p.m. Tuesday on WFUV (90.7 FM). There is limited public seating for the discussion, which you can get by registering at The panel includes Sean Wilentz, chair, American Studies, Princeton University; Bill Flanagan, senior VP MTV Networks; authors David Hajdu and Dave Marsh, and singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell. WFUV music director Rita Houston moderates the discussion.

Artist Chuck Close, whose work is currently the subject of a retrospective survey at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, joins Kurt Andersen on "Studio 360." The show airs at 11 a.m. Saturday on WNYC (93.9 FM) and repeats at 7 p.m. March 21 on WNYC (820 AM).

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