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Stern Editing Elicits a New Kind of Shock : Radio: KLSX owner Greater Media's actions draw criticism from legal experts, listeners and even people who oppose the 'shock jock's' show.

March 17, 1993|CLAUDIA PUIG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The admission by a station executive that Howard Stern's racy morning show is being systematically edited by KLSX-FM (97.1) has produced a flurry of negative reaction, even from those who would like to see the so-called "shock jock" taken off the air.

Legal experts say the station's action is a classic case of the "chilling effect" that government regulation can have on free speech. Stern fans are angry that they aren't getting to listen to his comic antics in their entirety. And his critics say the editing is ineffective.

"Certainly KLSX is within its right to size up its options and decide what to do, but I find it rather a mistake," said Jeff Cole, a lecturer on media ethics at UCLA. "Howard Stern didn't come to KLSX as an enigma or a mystery. Howard Stern came with this extraordinary controversial image. That is what they bought. That is what they promoted. And now Howard Stern is being Howard Stern and this is what listeners want; this is what made Howard Stern the No. 1 person during his hours. Now that the going is getting a little tough, KLSX wants to neuter Howard Stern, and that is not going to really satisfy his critics and it's going to make listeners feel like they're little children and have to listen to a condensed or abridged version."

The editing came to light last week after an hourlong segment of the Stern show was cut. Prior to that the editing had been relatively minor--usually just a few lines at a time--but this segment featured a protracted series of crude jokes at the expense of guest Jessica Hahn, who was on the program to promote her new video.

The first three hours of Stern's New York-based show are heard live on KLSX from 3-6 a.m. The program is then broadcast in its entirety on tape from 6 a.m. to about 10:30 a.m. The Hahn segment was aired from 5-6 a.m. but was cut from the second broadcast. Federal regulations limiting the use of indecency are in effect from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Greater Media Inc., which owns KLSX and was fined $105,000 in October for Stern broadcasts deemed indecent by the Federal Communications Commission, said it had ordered the editing in hopes of avoiding further sanctions. But Stern fans were mystified by that decision.

"There's still enough material remaining on the air to come up with reams of complaints," said Marc Wielage, a video engineer and Stern fan. "Greater Media has aired material that is every bit as risque as what they were cited for last October. The show is still going to offend people who have always been offended by it. So I fail to see how it's going to do any good. KLSX should either air the show intact or else take it off entirely for something more politically correct. You either go all the way or not at all."

Even the Rev. Louis Sheldon, chairman of the Anaheim-based Traditional Values Coalition, who in the past has sharply criticized Stern, sees the editing as a rather useless effort.

"In the short term it certainly seems like a small step forward, but in terms of the long term it won't be appropriate at all," he said, "because if the man tends to do obscenities and vulgar things on the radio, it's bound to slip out in some other way that isn't going to be controllable."

Al Westcott--the self-styled crusader who filed the complaint against Greater Media that led to its $105,000 fine, and to another one of $600,000 against Infinity Broadcasting Corp. for broadcasting the same material on three of its stations--also views the editing policy as ineffective.

"I think it's a step in the right direction but it comes a little too late," Westcott said. "I wonder why this particular segment struck (Greater Media). I've heard other material that I would consider to be equally objectionable."

Westcott is now based in Las Vegas and has since filed four more complaints against Stern, who is also heard in Las Vegas. Two of his complaints are pending for investigation, said Bob Ratcliffe, assistant chief of law in the FCC's mass media bureau. Ratcliffe said that there are no other complaints on file from listeners in any of the 15 cities in which Stern's show is heard.

Meanwhile, freedom of speech advocates are concerned about what the ramifications of Greater Media's self-censorship might be on other broadcasters.

"To the extent that this technique is successful with someone like Stern without the commission staff having to justify its proceedings even to the full commission or take it all the way through the court, it redefines the relationship between the commission and broadcasters in a way that is potentially ominous for other types of material which someday may evoke the commission's displeasure," said Robert O'Neil, law professor and director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of the Freedom of Speech at the University of Virginia.

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