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COVER STORY : Radio in the Raw : To Howard Stern and Mark & Brian, the sexually explicit material in their morning shows may be fun. But it's comedy that couldn't be on TV--and some people don't get the joke
In the last four years, 14 radio stations nationwide have been fined by the FCC for indecent broadcasting, which is defined by the FCC as "language or material that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory activities or organs." Fines have ranged from $2,000 to $20,000.
A Stern show that aired in December, 1988, was cited for indecent broadcasting by the FCC, leading the commission to levy a $6,000 fine against the company that syndicates his show, Infinity Broadcasting Corp., in November, 1990. But the matter has been held up by appeals and the fine is still pending, Holberg said. (Stern suggested on the air Jan. 22 that the case would wind up before the U.S. Supreme Court and predicted that, given the court's conservative makeup, his show would be dead within five years.)
Wednesday, Oct. 2: Stern's guest is sex therapist Ruth Westheimer. Among his questions: "Can a man break his penis?" "What's the biggest penis on record?" "Does a man-made vagina (in a transsexual) feel like the real thing?"
Monday, Sept. 23: Brian recounts how he had asked Mark's wife if he could borrow the copy of Penthouse magazine that she had purchased for a recent airplane flight, and that she'd said no. Mark asks why he wanted it. Without a moment's hesitation, Brian responds, "To masturbate with!"
For every person who publicly decries such broadcasts, there are several more--inside and outside the radio industry--who staunchly defend the rights of creative personalities to say whatever they choose.
"I hear disc jockeys doing stuff that I personally find in really bad taste or offensive, but the First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, even if that speech is obnoxious to somebody," said radio programming consultant Dan O'Day. "I hear disc jockeys who are racist, who are sexist, who are homophobic, and they express that on the air. . . . I find it much more discouraging that stations allow somebody to go out and be hurtful, than if somebody is offensive."
"(The concern with children listening) hits home with people and makes sense. It's legitimate," said Jeff Cole, who teaches a media ethics course at UCLA. "But we cannot program all of our TV and radio stations as if a parent was sitting with their incredibly naive child. . . . All you basically have to know as a parent is that Howard (Stern) is on in the morning and on 97.1, and if you're in the car with your child, avoid 97.1."
Broadcast consultant John Lund tends to take a similar approach, akin to "let the buyer beware."
"If the listeners didn't like it, they wouldn't listen, and if they didn't listen, the ratings would go down," Lund said. "So the fact is that listeners must like it."
Indeed, that is the argument that most station officials make: These programs are among the most popular in a competitive market.
"Most markets have at least one shock jock," said comedian and former radio personality George Carlin. "The people who run these radio stations are these so-called pillars of the community, but they're not above making a buck, so they're willing to stretch the moral envelope. I just look at it as one more example of a kind of two-faced, hypocritical society."