Cash and complaints roll in for 'shock jock'

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The Independent Online
IN A war likely to end in the Supreme Court, the main US broadcasting regulatory agency has launched a new campaign against America's most notorious radio talk-show host, whose musings on sex, race and scatology have attracted dollars 1.2m ( pounds 800,000) of federal fines - all of them so far unpaid.

The struggle between the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the New York-based 'shock jock' Howard Stern is a classic First Amendment conflict, pitting America's constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech against pressure groups seeking to clean up the airwaves - at least during the daytime.

The tussle began in 1990, when the first charges of indecency surfaced against the then relatively unknown Mr Stern. In reponse, the FCC levied a series of fines against Infinity Broadcasting, the radio company which employs him, culminating in a dollars 500,000 penalty last August. But to no avail.

Infinity, claiming it would appeal against the ruling to the highest court if neccessary, has not paid a cent. In the meantime - not least thanks to the sky-rocketing celebrity of Mr Stern, whose book Private Parts became a bestseller - Infinity has grown into the third largest US radio chain, owning 20 stations. Its 1993 profits are estimated at dollars 90m.

Now the FCC has opened a new front against Infinity and its star attraction, by announcing it will delay the dollars 170m acquisition by Infinity of three new stations 'indefinitely'. The hold-up could cost the radio company millions of dollars in contract penalties.

The action had been requested by a black business association which objected to the 'racist and morally offensive' nature of Mr Stern's remarks, and by a broadcasting watchdog group, Americans for Responsible Television, which wants Mr Stern's shows transmitted only in the evening.

The FCC faces an uphill battle. With his crude language, trademark dark glasses and black shoulder- length hair, Mr Stern has become a radio cult figure second only to the conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh.

Featured spots on his shows, apart from constant discussion of his own penis, are items like 'Lesbian dial-a-date' and 'Who's the Jew'. When a gravely ill former FCC chairman criticised him, Mr Stern 'prayed' on the air that the chairman's prostate cancer 'spreads into his lungs and kidneys'. Infinity apologised. Mr Stern did not.

Such is the sort of offence Mr Stern relishes causing, and which his followers excuse by arguing that anyone who disapproves merely has to change station. Experts meanwhile wrangle over exactly what constitutes 'indecency'. The FCC definition is material that is patently offensive and depicts sexual or excretory activities or organs. But when may it be broadcast?

In November, a US appeal court rejected new FCC regulations banning sexually explicit programmes between 6am and midnight, saying the proscribed period was too long. The agency has gone back to the previous system, banning 'indecent' shows between 6am and 8pm.

As far as Mr Stern is concerned, all publicity is good publicity. His daily audience now numbers 15 million and his annual earnings are at least dollars 10m.