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FCC VERSUS HOWARD STERN : Agency's 'Indecency' Ruling Hasn't Stopped N.Y. Deejay

Third in a series. Next: The clash over song lyrics at KCSB-FM.

August 19, 1987|DENNIS McDOUGAL | Times Staff Writer

Relentless self-promoter. . . .

Nice Jewish boy from Long Island. . . .

Calculatingly offensive but funny, very funny. . . .

Typical New York hustler who'll say anything for a buck. . . .

The range of descriptions of the most popular morning deejay in Manhattan doesn't stop there. Nowadays, he's also the sneering champion of First Amendment rights.

Howard Stern, the 33-year-old clever, angry cynic who holds court each morning over WXRK-FM, became the focus of national attention last spring when the Federal Communications Commission singled him out as the very incarnation of broadcast indecency.

On the face of things, not much has changed. New York cabbies still apologize to their fares for listening to Stern and offer to switch channels if it becomes too offensive. Stockbrokers and stevedores alike tune in while they're stuck on the Long Island Expressway to see who Stern is savaging now. Brooklyn teens still sneak in a listen over their parents' objections.

And Stern still spews invective and innuendo at every minority and majority group in the five boroughs and beyond.

He grants no interviews these days. According to his agent, Richard Basch, Stern says all that he will say to the press about the FCC over his morning radio program.

Lanky (6-foot-4), loudmouthed and admittedly lewd, Stern has been sniping at the FCC itself since its April 16 decision. There is now a disclaimer at the top of his program advising parents that the rock-and-talk program is "for adult audiences, and some adults may find portions of the show offensive."

But, basically, the 6-to-10-a.m. program, which is simulcast over WYSP-FM in Philadelphia, remains as snide and sexual as it was before the warning from the FCC that WYSP could be fined or lose its license if Stern persisted in being indecent.

"The ruling is so vague as to what indecency is . . . so blurred . . . that it really is scary," said Ken Stevens, WYSP's general manager.

Outside of totally gutting his on-air act, Stern and Infinity Broadcasting, owner of both WYSP and WXRK (and KROQ-FM in Pasadena, Calif.), have no specific guidelines on how far they may go in broadcasting Stern's brand of shock satire.

Though Stern hasn't shown any outward sign that he is censoring his material, Stevens says the FCC ruling has "had a mentally chilling effect generally on performers like Howard."

It is ironic that, 12 years after he began getting himself regularly fired by challenging the bounds of good taste while he angled for the big time, Stern has the No. 1 morning-radio show in the No. 1 market in the country at the same time that the FCC has threatened to permanently pull his plug.

Even before he was a professional, Stern was getting his show yanked for cause. He was thrown off his very first radio gig as a Boston University student deejay. His on-air act was milder in those days. The bit that got him the boot was called "Godzilla Goes to Harlem."

Since then, he has promoted an on-air lesbian dating service, suggested that Princess Diana was not a virgin on her wedding day, offered to become the slave master for the Pointer Sisters and gave a broadcast forum to animal lovers--that is, animal lovers in the most intimate sense.

He has become a millionaire since he first went on the air commercially in Upstate New York in 1976 and he has managed to push his earnings to a rumored $750,000 a year by daily testing the bounds of taste. For his trouble, he has been unceremoniously fired from station after station, always landing on his feet in a bigger market by promising to deliver big ratings.

And he does deliver big ratings. From Detroit to Washington to New York and Philadelphia, his audience has gotten bigger as his act has grown ranker.

Ten months ago, he went over the line, according to the FCC.

Over the Line

"He asked the woman who worked with him there if she hadn't jumped the turnstile at the subway that morning and if she caught her hair when she jumped over. Well, it was very clear he meant her pubic hair," said Allen Wildmon, public relations director for the Tupelo, Miss.-based National Federation for Decency. "There was also references to her breast size and references to oral sex."

Last October, two members of the Philadelphia chapter of the National Federation for Decency taped the Howard Stern show and sent it off to Tupelo. Wildmon transcribed the randiest portions of the tapes himself and shipped them to Washington.

Along with a third tape mailed in by Mary V. Keeley of Philadelphia, a 48-year-old housewife and mother of a 15-year-old Stern fan, the five FCC commissioners believed they had sufficient evidence and cause to accuse Stern of indecent broadcasting and to threaten WYSP with fines or loss of its broadcast license if the indecency continued.

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