At the Federal Communication Commission's headquarters in Washington, the Complaints and Investigations Branch for years has been inundated with audiotapes, correspondence and legal briefs pertaining to Howard Stern and his syndicated radio show. Thousands of letters, faxes, postcards, telephone messages and mass-produced petitions are indexed, numbered and affixed to copies of the replies mailed by the FCC.
If Infinity Broadcasting Corp. has spent more than $3 million to defend its most valuable broadcaster, as its president once claimed, American taxpayers, like it or not, may have paid much more to restrain and explain him.
To examine the thick sheaves of correspondence in the cluttered records room on M Street is to realize that freedom of speech and freedom to dissent are costly rights to exercise and honor. The letters reflect an incalculable expenditure of manpower and clerical hours. They also offer insights into Stern's vast audience of detractors and admirers.
An unsigned letter from Cerritos complained "about the most revolting monster ever to hit the airwaves: Howard Stern . . . .The New Years [sic] 'show' [in 1993, on pay-per-view] which he offered for $40 (and which one of our neighbors taped), even grossed out the men. The show was vile, disgusting, repulsive, and repugnant . . . . Please, please do something for the good of all humanity and keep this vile monster off the air and TV for good."
Among the letters from Howard's defenders was one forwarded to the FCC by Sen. Dianne Feinstein. A Los Angeles man argued: "I have never written a political leader before, but an injustice currently being carried out by the Government in the form of selective punishment and an attempt to circumvent the right to free speech has prompted me to ask for your intervention. As you may know, the FCC has been fining the employer of Howard Stern hundreds of thousands of dollars for comments made on his radio show. Regardless of how we feel about Mr. Stern's show and its contents, clearly it is no more obscene or pornographic than many television and radio shows which have not be[en] the target of fines or penalties."
As raunchy as Stern's program has often been, dwelling on sex and often more sex, real and wantonly fantasized, it was protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution: "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech," as interpreted by the FCC. The FCC routinely encouraged those complaining about Howard's show to direct their concerns to the radio stations on which they heard him, because, to quote one letter from the agency, such "commentary can be effective in influencing broadcaster's [sic] programming decisions."
When Howard joined WNBC in New York in 1982, the FCC articulated this hands-off policy. But the mail kept coming. A Long Island man vented in a 1985 letter to Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.): "It is, in my opinion, one of the most degrading and repulsive radio programs I have ever heard. Is there nothing in the law that would prevent this pollution of the air waves?"
James C. McKinney, chief of the FCC's Mass Media Bureau, wrote in a response to a similar query: "As deplorable and offensive as certain remarks may be, they are not subject to review and action by this agency."
After WNBC fired Stern in the fall of 1985, Infinity prepared to put him on one of its New York stations, WXRK, known as "K-Rock." According to company president Mel Karmazin, he first met with McKinney in Washington to inquire about indecency regulations. As Karmazin later recalled the meeting, McKinney said that " 'it's very simple: All you need to do is to not say the seven dirty words.' And we entered into a contract with Howard . . . and in the list of things that were prohibited, Howard could not say the seven dirty words." (Interviewed in 1995, McKinney said that he could not recall meeting with Karmazin--but if he had, he added, he would have presented a more complex definition of indecency.)
The "seven dirty words" (s- - -, p- - -, f- - -, c- - -, c- - - - - - - - -, m- - - - - - - - - - - and t- -) had assumed a level of extreme seriousness in the radio industry as a result of the landmark court case that had produced the prevailing definition of broadcast indecency. In 1978, in a case stemming from the radio transmission of a George Carlin comedy routine, the U.S. Supreme Court had upheld the FCC's right to ban the broadcast of words that the commission deemed "patently offensive" during hours when children were in the audience.