By Stephanie Zacharek
By Robrt L. Pela
By Aaron Cutler
By Amy Nicholson
By Simon Abrams
By Chris Klimek
By Nick Schager
By Stephanie Zacharek
"It's frightening. So maybe now, when you've got some control and power, you go, 'Wow, I finally got here. I don't want to give this up--not yet.' I'm just coming into my own, really, when you think about it. Now I'm in a different situation. I can. . . . Well, am I really? I got the government on my ass . . . it's always something. There's always some sort of battle being fought, and I guess if you get tired of the battle, you just fade out. You just leave."
Maybe the reason Howard Stern does not trust success is that each time he accrues a little, he can't quite wallow in it. When Stern came to L.A. on July 25, 1991, KFI-AM's then-top talk man, Tom Leykis, predicted Stern would die in the market. "People in Los Angeles do not like insult humor, for one thing," he told the L.A. Times. "And for another, folks here don't really like New York or New Yorkers." Variations on Leykis' comments were heard when Stern debuted in Dallas the next year: That obnoxious New York Jew won't last a year in the buckle of the Bible Belt.
And yet, by October 1992, Stern was number one in L.A., marking the first time a radio jock was at the top of the ratings charts in both of the nation's biggest cities at the same time. (He went to number one in Dallas two years later, and he tops most of the 35 markets he's currently in. Now at Phoenix's KEDJ-FM (The Edge), Stern accounts for 57 percent of the station's total audience.) It was the beginning of Howard Stern's rise to superstar status.
But just three weeks after Stern hit number one in L.A., the FCC hit him with a $105,000 fine. It was one of many he'd get--not the first, not the last, not even the biggest. In December 1992, Stern--through his stations in New York, Philadelphia and Manassas, Virginia (Washington, D.C.)--was fined a total of $600,000, which was then a record for the largest fine ever imposed. Stern says the FCC was sending a message, and that it was the first time he really knew that he and the government were in it for the long haul.
"They timed it just so because I was getting real heat when I went to number one in Los Angeles," Stern says. "It was a big statement for me to go number one in L.A. within a year. Then the FCC socked me the next day. They were gonna teach me a lesson, and they won. They did. They just keep coming."
On September 1, 1995, the FCC announced that it had settled the complaints against Stern: Infinity Broadcasting Corporation--which was sold to Westinghouse Electric Corporation in December 1996--had agreed to pay $1.715 million to the U.S. Treasury to get the government off its back. In exchange, the FCC agreed to wipe the slate clean: Any subsequent fine against Stern would be dealt with as a first offense, which carried a significantly lighter fine. And, indeed, when Stern's Richmond, Virginia, affiliate, WBZU-FM, was slapped with a fine in October 1996 for broadcasting "obscene, indecent or profane language," the amount was a mere $10,000.
When the settlement was reached with Infinity, FCC chairman Reed Hundt issued a statement proclaiming victory: "The settlement . . . represents the largest amount ever contributed to the U.S. Treasury by a broadcast station licensee."
Commissioner James Quello--a former newsman and a self-proclaimed regular listener who, four years ago, said Stern had "tamed" his act--issued a statement through the agency that hinted Infinity had acknowledged Stern's licentious actions by paying up. "On a personal level," Quello wrote, "as a longtime champion of indecency rules to guide responsible broadcasters, I am pleased that the settlement is premised upon the validity of the FCC's rules against the dissemination of indecent materials by our licensees. . . . I am further encouraged that the ownership of Infinity itself has taken positive and concrete steps to more carefully train, supervise and monitor its on-the-air personnel."
A month later, Stern was back in the FCC's bad graces with a broadcast about fucking his wife. According to government transcripts, it was an exhaustive broadcast that included references to anal sex ("I'm manipulating her, spreading the cheeks"), vibrators and lubricants ("the vibrator disappeared"), black music (or "Negro race music," as Stern calls it, "because to me that's the music you have sex to . . . this music was so rhythmic a Mongoloid could feel the beat") and oral sex ("my tongue was used"). It's the sort of fodder that regularly fills four hours every single weekday, a peek behind the curtains at the Stern house.
"They're funny, aren't they?" Stern says of the FCC's transcripts of his show. "I mean, you read through them, and you just giggle. That was my perception with the book [Private Parts], that if you could somehow get it onto paper, it would look funny. It's harmless."
In reality, the monetary amounts of the fines are secondary to the larger issue of how the FCC uses the citations against Stern to refuse to grant Infinity Broadcasting licenses in other markets; documents obtained from the commission show that the FCC slowed Infinity from obtaining stations in Dallas and L.A., among other cities.
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