The passion of Howard Stern

The shock jock says radio colossus Clear Channel fired him because he criticized George Bush -- and he's sure as hell not going to go quietly.

By Eric Boehlert
Published March 4, 2004 8:45PM (EST)

From the moment last week when Clear Channel Communications suspended Howard Stern's syndicated morning show from the company's radio stations, denouncing it as "vulgar, offensive and insulting," speculation erupted that the move had more to do with Stern's politics than his raunchy shock-jock shtick.

Stern's loyal listeners, Clear Channel foes and many Bush administration critics immediately reached the same conclusion: The notorious jock was yanked off the air because he had recently begun trashing Bush, and Bush-friendly Clear Channel used the guise of "indecency" to shut him up. That the content of Stern's crude show hadn't suddenly changed, but his stance on Bush had, gave the theory more heft. That, plus his being pulled off the air in key electoral swing states such as Florida and Pennsylvania.

This week, Stern himself went on the warpath, weaving in among his familiar monologues about breasts and porn actresses accusations that Texas-based Clear Channel -- whose Republican CEO, Lowry Mays, is extremely close to both George W. Bush and Bush's father -- canned him because he deviated from the company's pro-Bush line. "I gotta tell you something," Stern told his listeners. "There's a lot of people saying that the second that I started saying, 'I think we gotta get Bush out of the presidency,' that's when Clear Channel banged my ass outta here. Then I find out that Clear Channel is such a big contributor to President Bush, and in bed with the whole Bush administration, I'm going, 'Maybe that's why I was thrown off: because I don't like the way the country is leaning too much to the religious right.' And then, bam! Let's get rid of Stern. I used to think, 'Oh, I can't believe that.' But that's it! That's what's going on here! I know it! I know it!"

Stern's been relentless all week, detailing the close ties between Clear Channel executives and the Bush administration, and insisting that political speech, not indecency, got him in trouble with the San Antonio broadcasting giant. If he hadn't turned against Bush, Stern told his listeners, he'd still be heard on Clear Channel stations.

In a statement released to Salon, the media company insists that "Clear Channel Radio is not operated according to any political agenda or ideology." Clear Channel Radio chief Joe Hogan said, "The decision to suspend Howard Stern from our radio stations is based on our regulatory obligation and commitment to airing material that conforms to the standards and sensibilities of the local communities we serve."

Although by far the most powerful, Stern is not the first radio jock to charge Clear Channel with retaliation for anti-Bush comments.

"I'm glad he's pissed off and I hope he raises hell every single day," says Roxanne Walker, who claims Clear Channel fired her last year because of her antiwar views. "I think any time a broader section of the population hears about the Bush administration and the Clear Channel connection, it's a good thing."

Walker, South Carolina Broadcasters Association's 2002 radio personality of the year, is suing Clear Channel for violating a state law that forbids employers from punishing employees who express politically unpopular beliefs in the workplace.

"On our show we talked about politics and current events," she tells Salon. "There were two conservative partners and me, the liberal, and that was fine. But as it became clear we were going to war, and I kept charging the war was not justified, I was reprimanded by [Clear Channel] management that I needed to tone that down. Basically I was told to shut up." She says she was fired on April 7, 2003.

Phoenix talk show host Charles Goyette says he was kicked off his afternoon drive-time program at Clear Channel's KFYI because of his sharp criticism of the war on Iraq. A self-described Goldwater Republican who was selected "man of the year" by the Republican Party in his local county in 1988, Goyette -- more recently named best talk show host of 2003 by the Phoenix New Times -- says his years with Clear Channel had been among his best in broadcasting. "The trouble started during the long march to war," he says.

While the rest of the station's talk lineup was in a pro-war "frenzy," Goyette was inviting administration critics like former weapons inspector Scott Ritter on his show, and discussing complaints from the intelligence community that the analysis on Iraq was being cooked to support the White House's pro-war agenda. This didn't go over well with his bosses, Goyette says: "I was the Baby Ruth bar in the punch bowl."

Soon, according to Goyette, he was having "toe-to-toe confrontations" with his local Clear Channel managers off the air about his opposition to the war. "One of my bosses said in a tone of exasperation, 'I feel like I'm managing the Dixie Chicks,'" Goyette recalls. "I didn't fit in with the Clear Channel corporate culture."

Writing in the February issue of American Conservative magazine, Goyette put it this way: "Why only a couple of months after my company picked up the option on my contract for another year in the fifth-largest city in the United States, did it suddenly decide to relegate me to radio Outer Darkness? The answer lies hidden in the oil-and-water incompatibility of these two seemingly disconnected phrases: 'Criticizing Bush' and 'Clear Channel.'"

Goyette, who was relegated to the dead 7-10 p.m. slot, wrote, "I was replaced on my primetime talk show by the Frick and Frack of Bushophiles, two giggling guys who think everything our tongue-tied president does is 'Most excellent, dude!'"

Whether Stern was suspended because of his Bush-bashing -- or only because of his Bush-bashing -- is open to question. As reported in Salon, the media behemoth had another powerful reason to clean up its image: In the wake of Janet Jackson's nipplegate, broadcasters faced hostile congressional hearings about indecency on the airwaves and a new bill that would drastically increase the penalties for it. Indeed, the day before it dropped Stern, Clear Channel fired its top-rated Tampa, Fla., shock jock, "Bubba the Love Sponge," who had been recently fined $755,000 by the Federal Communications Commission for indecency.

Several radio insiders interviewed by Salon are skeptical of Stern's inference about his suspension. "I don't think this had anything to do with helping Bush," says Robert Unmacht, former publisher of the radio trade publication, the M Street Journal. "It had to do with the one thing Clear Channel cares about, their bottom line. They're just bankers."

Unmacht also points out that Stern appears in only six markets for Clear Channel, so dumping him was a relatively painless way to score moral points -- and paint Clear Channel rival Infinity, which broadcasts most of Stern's shows, as pandering to indecency.

"Howard thrives when he has an enemy, and this is a pretty good enemy," Unmacht says. "Howard will rail against whoever he thinks is hurting him."

But if Clear Channel hoped that sacking Stern for indecency would earn the company Brownie points, the shock jock's rampage against its Bush connections has only given it another P.R. headache.

Headaches are nothing new for Clear Channel. Over the last five years the company has ballooned into a radio and music industry monster and in the process has faced numerous allegations about unfair business practices. Following the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which ushered in sweeping radio consolidations, the company has grown from 40 to approximately 1,200 stations, or roughly 970 more than its closest competitor. Clear Channel also owns nearly three dozen television stations, 770,000 billboards, and an unmatched list of venues, promoters and tours that allow it to exercise a powerful control over the concert industry.

If Clear Channel did fire Stern at least partly to prop up Bush, the move may backfire -- especially if Stern's rage against Clear Channel feeds his newfound distaste for the president. Stern's audience contains many independents and potential swing voters.

At least one radio pro suggests Stern's sudden turn against Bush could prove costly to the administration during this election year. "Absolutely it should be of concern for the White House," says Michael Harrison, the publisher of Talkers magazine, a nonpartisan trade magazine serving talk radio. "Howard Stern will be an influential force for the public and for other talk show hosts during the election. Despite the shock jock thing, Stern has credibility. He's looked upon as an honest person.

"Clear Channel is a good target and Stern may be honestly upset with them. But over time he'll realize Bush makes a better target, and Stern could be the leader of a new anti-Bush movement. Bush is very vulnerable at talk radio and Stern could reinvent himself as a new, improved Stern and take on more serious issues."

The new Stern may be coming, but the old Stern is still holding the mike. In recent days, when not pounding Clear Channel and Bush, Stern updated listeners on his bouts of late-night masturbation and welcomed to the studio a guy who likes women to vomit on him.

Stern's political conversion came on Monday, Feb. 23, when he returned to the show after a week's vacation and announced he'd read Al Franken's anti-Bush book, "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right." That morning Stern, who had strongly backed Bush during the war on Iraq, told listeners, "If you read this book, you will never vote for George W. Bush. I think this guy is a religious fanatic and a Jesus freak, and he is just hell-bent on getting some sort of bizzaro agenda through -- like a country-club agenda -- so that his father will finally be proud of him ... I don't know much about Kerry, but I think I'm one of those 'Anybody but Bush' guys now. I don't think G.W. is going to win. What do you think about that?"

Three days later, on the morning of Feb. 26, Stern was suspended from all six Clear Channel stations that aired his wake-up program. Company executives pointed to the Tuesday show as the reason for the suspension. During that program Stern interviewed Rick Solomon, who had starred in a sex tape with Paris Hilton. The conversation was graphic (Stern: "I can't believe you banged her. Did you get anal?"), and one caller used a racial slur that was broadcast. But Stern's shows are filled with such language and have been for years.

On Monday, March 2, Stern was telling his vast audience he took a hit because of his stance on Bush.

For her part, former Clear Channel jock Walker doubts that politics was behind Clear Channel's move against Stern. "Much as I'd love this to be about Bush and politics, it's more about sex and indecency," she says. But she stresses the important thing for people to understand is the relationships among Clear Channel CEO Mays, vice chairman Tom Hicks and George W. Bush. Says Walker, "These are not casual acquaintances."

Mays is a staunch Republican, a good friend of the elder George Bush, and close to the current president. "I see him all the time," Mays told a reporter during the 2000 presidential campaign. "His father's a friend of mine." Mays and the company have showered the party with contributions, while essentially stiffing Democrats. Mays served as one of Texas A&M's nine regents when the school landed the elder Bush's presidential library. Mays subsequently became a major donor to the library. Also, former President Bush and Mays shared a podium when they were inducted into the Texas Business Hall of Fame on the same evening in 1999.

FCC chairman Michael Powell, appointed by the current president, has been pushing a strong pro-big-business, deregulation agenda, which makes Mays happy. But Texas investment banker Hicks may have an even closer relationship to Bush. Hicks, a major Bush donor, sits on the Clear Channel board. The two men helped make each other very wealthy during the 1990s. When Bush was governor of Texas he privatized the financial assets of the University of Texas, all $13 billion worth, rolled them into a single entity, and placed it under the control of Hicks, who, behind closed doors, doled out investment deals to longtime Bush family political contributors. In 1998, Hicks turned around and bought the Texas Rangers from a group of investors that included Bush; Bush pocketed $15 million off his initial investment of $605,000, most of which was borrowed.

During the 2000 campaign, Hicks announced on a conference call among Clear Channel's senior radio executives that the company was supporting Bush's presidential run, that everyone was encouraged to make donations, and that the legal department would be in contact with donors in order to maintain a proper roster. "Some people took out their checkbooks, but lots of people felt it was staged like a shakedown," Salon was told last year by one knowledgeable source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "To be fair, Hicks told everyone they were free to vote for whoever they wanted. But some senior people felt there was an implied pressure there, especially with the mention of the law department maintaining a roster of donors."

Clear Channel is also the corporate home of rabid Bush booster Rush Limbaugh, who spoke to company managers during a Clear Channel conference on the eve of the 2000 presidential election. According to one person who attended, Mays also addressed assembled executives, telling them a Bush administration would be good for the radio industry and good for America.

Just before the war, Clear Channel made news when its syndicated talk show host Glenn Beck began promoting "Rallies for America." Clear Channel insisted the events were put together at the local level and not sponsored by San Antonio headquarters. Yet at a time when antiwar rallies were dominating the news, Clear Channel played a key role in giving war supporters a voice by providing a turnkey service: staging the events, acquiring any necessary permits, taking care of security, assembling speakers, and of course relentlessly publicizing the events on Clear Channel radio stations.

Clear Channel does employ some liberal talkers, such as the popular host Randi Rhodes, who broadcasts out of WJNO in West Palm Beach, Fla. Rhodes is going national this year, but it's not Clear Channel who's giving her a syndicated deal -- it's the Air America Radio Network, the new liberal talk network, which debuts this spring.

If Stern keeps up the Bush bashing, he might fit right in on Air America's roster.

Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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