Film Reviews

Stern und Drang

Page 6 of 9

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.

During a speech delivered March 17, 1994, before the Federal Communications Bar Association in Washington, D.C., Quello explained that if the FCC were to continue granting new licenses to Infinity, that might be "misinterpreted as the FCC endorsing Infinity and Howard Stern's actions, [and] I believe it is antithetical to the public interest to authorize additional stations for probable dissemination of gross indecency and possibly obscene broadcasts by Stern."

Infinity tried, on several occasions, to take the FCC to court: The broadcaster tried to goad the commission into proving Stern was legally obscene and indecent, which is supposed to be determined by a particular community's standards. But the FCC never called the bluff; instead, the government agency engaged in what Stern calls "blackmail," holding up Infinity's licenses until the company paid the exorbitant fines.

"They should have brought me to court," Stern says. "That would have been the honorable thing to do. If they think I am doing something indecent or obscene, take me to court, and I should be in jail if I'm broadcasting indecent material. They never did. Infinity begged them to go to court. We kept filing papers saying we will go to court, but what happened was they delayed all of that for years, and they blackmailed Infinity. They cost them millions and millions of dollars.

"I don't know why this doesn't disturb journalists. I don't read about this. The United States government can't use blackmail in one situation through a government agency to get you to do something in a whole other scenario. What they did was unthinkable. And where were my fellow broadcasters? Where the fuck were these people? Where were the journalists? They think, Oh, I'm not gonna go to bat for Howard Stern. If it was Dan Rather who was having a First Amendment situation, we would go to bat for him."

But Stern was worth the money to Infinity. It was a minute amount compared to how much he brings in for the company and its affiliates every year. Stern won't disclose how much he makes in each of his markets; after all, this is the man who claims he dropped out of the last New York gubernatorial race because he didn't want to disclose his financial records. But it has been reported that his seven-year contract with KLSX-FM in L.A., signed in July 1991, is worth a little less than $1 million a year--plus percentages of the ad revenues he generates (Stern's deal with KLSX is unique in that the station airs his show live from 3 to 6 a.m., then goes to tape delay from 6 to about 10:30 a.m.; no other non-East Coast market airs Stern live). The average Stern makes in the major markets per year is $700,000, usually with a cut of the ad money; such was the deal he cut with Dallas' KEGL-FM in 1992. Figures for Phoenix are unavailable.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky