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Strange things happen when top executives from Clear Channel Communications are called to testify before Congress.
In January 2003, CEO Lowry Mays was summoned before the Senate Commerce Committee where he was grilled about Clear Channel’s sprawling radio, concert and billboard empire and about longstanding allegations that it engaged in anti-competitive business practices. Mays was also pressed about charges of pay for play, or payola, and the clout of indie promoters, the music industry middlemen who cash in by getting songs played on the radio.
Weeks later, as talk of a separate congressional hearing on payola persisted, Clear Channel shocked the industry when it announced it was ending all its exclusive, lucrative contracts with indies. “We have zero tolerance for ‘pay for play,’” Mays announced. No congressional hearing on payola was ever held.
Fast-forward one year to this week, when Clear Channel Radio president John Hogan was set to face hostile congressional questioning on broadcast indecency, spurred in part by the scandalous Janet Jackson/Justin Timberlake halftime performance at the Super Bowl. Again Clear Channel took the initiative and stunned the industry in recent days by launching an unprecedented, zero tolerance indecency crackdown.
On Tuesday, the company announced that it had fired its top-rated Tampa, Fla., shock jock, Bubba the Love Sponge, who was recently fined $755,000 by the Federal Communications Commission for indecency violations. Then, on Wednesday, Clear Channel dropped the bomb, severing all ties with pioneering morning shock jock Howard Stern, labeling his syndicated show “vulgar, offensive and insulting,” and kicking the jock off six Clear Channel stations.
The move against Stern is largely symbolic. Viacom’s Infinity Broadcasting — a Clear Channel competitor — is Stern’s syndicator and main radio vehicle. But the pattern seems clear: Clear Channel turns a deaf ear to continuous complaints about its rampant consolidation and hardball business practices, but when Capitol Hill shows interest, the company springs into action.
“They don’t want to be before Congress and they don’t want to be an issue in Washington because it’s bad for business,” says Robert Unmacht, former publisher of the radio publication M Street Journal. “I have a tough time giving them credit for this indecency initiative because I think it’s all a reaction to Congress.”
“I guess the question is more a catechism one,” adds Arthur Belendiuk, a Washington telecommunications attorney. “Are they doing the right thing because they want to, or because they fear eternal damnation? Either way, they’re doing the right thing, and it’s a breath of fresh air.”
It was Belendiuk’s FCC indecency complaint, filed on behalf of a Florida listener, that lead to the $755,000 fine against Bubba the Love Sponge for 26 violations of the agency’s indecency standards. The disc jockey, whose real name is Todd Clem, has long been criticized for a program rich in explicit sex and drug content. One infamous show featured a detailed sexual discussion carried out by performers whose voices sounded like the cartoon characters George Jetson, Scooby Doo and Alvin the Chipmunk.
Clear Channel, dubbed by some radio insiders as the Evil Empire and once known for its raunchy, frat-boy style of no-holds-barred radio — both on the air and off — suddenly has recast itself as the maverick industry reformer. That’s the same Clear Channel where a market manager once offered this simple advice to Web designers working on station sites: “Tits equals hits.” And the same company at which a former DJ once told Salon: “When I think of Clear Channel, I think vicious, malicious and salacious.”
Why the facelift? The climate for broadcasters has turned ugly in Washington, where Congress has introduced legislation increasing the FCC’s power to enforce standards and raising the maximum fine from $27,500 to $275,000. If those penalties had been in effect this year, Clem’s recent fine would have cost Clear Channel $7.5 million, instead of $755,000. One Democratic FCC commissioner, Michael J. Copps, dissented on the Clem fine, insisting Clear Channel’s offending stations (Clem’s show is syndicated) should have instead been brought before the commission to decide whether their licenses should be revoked. That’s the ultimate broadcasting death sentence, and one FCC commissioners have rarely even discussed in public. Losing just one FM broadcast license in a major market would cost Clear Channel tens of millions of dollars.
But frustration has been mounting among consumers and politicians over radio’s rampant consolidation, and subsequent charges that enormous, out-of-town corporate owners no longer adhere to local standards. Radio is also in trouble because for years it looked the other way as crude, sex-obsessed shock jocks, interviewing strippers and reviewing porn movies on the air, clearly violated FCC rules that forbid the broadcasting of sexually explicit programming between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., when children may be tuning in.
“That type of thing doesn’t belong on the public air space,” argues Belendiuk. “If you want to tell me what two consenting adults do in their bedroom is their own business, I agree. But if two adults are on the corner of Fifth and Main Street, that’s a different standard. And [radio] broadcasts to the corner of Fifth and Main.”
Grappling with ways to deal with indecency and the admittedly vague rules that seem to guide the FCC, Clear Channel in January called for an industry-wide “Local Values Task Force” to develop indecency guidelines. Yet Clear Channel’s decision to yank Stern and the way the company took such a gratuitous swipe at the jock — and indirectly at their competitor, Infinity — signals a new, every-man-for-himself strategy among radio broadcasters worried about the buzz over indecency.
“Someone has to be made to be the poster child of bad behavior and Clear Channel is saying, ‘It’s not us,’” says Belendiuk. The clear implication of Clear Channel’s move to drop Stern is that Infinity continues to broadcast a vulgar, offensive program.
“It’s interesting, because Stern is not a big part of Clear Channel’s programming, he’s only on in six markets for them,” says Unmacht. “So banning him serves a double benefit for Clear Channel. It looks like they’re doing something about indecency, and they get to kick their competitor [Infinity] in the teeth. It almost looks like Clear Channel’s filing an indecency complaint against Howard Stern.”
“Clear Channel is a company with a history of being Machiavellian,” notes Sean Ross, vice president of music and programming at Edison Media Research and former radio editor at Billboard magazine. “That said, it looks like people are in a defense mode, not a Machiavellian one. Broadcasters don’t casually toss off a major-market morning show like Stern.” (Conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, whose program is syndicated by Clear Channel, misled listeners on Thursday by suggesting it was the government, not Clear Channel, that was attempting to “censor” Stern.)
A Clear Channel spokesperson did not return calls seeking comment.
Still, an obvious question arises from the housecleaning: How is it that programs that have been broadcast day in and day out for years on Clear Channel stations are suddenly deemed to be indecent? “It’s kind of like ‘Casablanca’ — they had to have known what was going on,” says Unmacht. “Clear Channel didn’t have a chance to listen to Howard Stern’s show over the last five years?”
“Of course they knew about the programming,” adds Belendiuk. “Bubba was the No. 1-rated show in Tampa. He could have been sacrificing virgins on the radio and the Mays [family] couldn’t have cared less.”
In fact, Clem did sacrifice a boar on the air, and Clear Channel executives shrugged. In February 2001, his morning show broadcast first the castration of a live boar and then the killing of the beast from the station’s parking lot. The Tampa station then posted pictures of the blood-soaked stunt on its Web site. (It was the third time in a year that an animal was killed or tortured on-air at a Clear Channel station.) Bubba was brought up on charges for animal cruelty and was eventually acquitted. The story became a local Tampa media spectacle. Was Clear Channel simply unaware?
Or what about the morning of Sept. 11, when Bubba and his morning crew joked about breaking news that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. Bubba suggested they crank call and tell workers there, “In case you guys don’t know it, the building’s on fire!” One sidekick joked, “You won’t be able to go to Windows on the World for lunch today!”
But on Thursday, Clear Channel’s Hogan struck an apologetic tone, telling members of Congress he was “ashamed to be in any way associated with Bubba The Love Sponge’s words. More than anything else, I am embarrassed by Bubba’s broadcasts.” The shows, he added, “are tasteless, they are vulgar, and they should not, do not and will not represent what Clear Channel is about.”
Now he tells us.
Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."More Eric Boehlert.