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Serious issues at the core of radio's off-the-air antics

March 01, 2004|David Folkenflik | Baltimore Sun

Radio is the source of a lot of edgy entertainment these days -- racy proclamations, angry rants and ego-driven intrigue -- but it's mostly happening off the air.

Last week alone, executives at the nation's largest radio company, Clear Channel Communications, set new internal standards for decency, fired a Florida talk show host known as "Bubba the Love Sponge" for his explicit comments on sex and drugs, and pulled the program of Howard Stern, the nation's best-known shock jock, from its airwaves (at least for now).

Cultural conservatives have cheered the moves. But the Stern suspension arrived with little cost to Clear Channel: The often-raunchy show was being carried on just six of its 1,200 radio stations, all in midlevel markets. And some observers say the San Antonio company's moves are politically driven, in direct response to the anti-indecency rhetoric streaming from public officials. (Clear Channel officials did not return e-mailed requests for comment.)

"This is an election year," says Larry Gerbrandt, chief operating officer for Kagan World Media, a research and consulting firm in Carmel. "Senators get headlines off this stuff. There's a lot of chest-beating out there."

This round of chest-beating follows Janet Jackson's now-infamous breast-baring incident during last month's MTV-produced Super Bowl halftime show on CBS. Clear Channel has undergone a "deathbed conversion" on decency issues, said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, president of the Media Access Project, a nonprofit group that advocates against media consolidation. "They're obviously scared to death."

All of this heat obscures what are, at their core, serious issues -- competing concerns about free speech and the coarsening of public discourse.

Mel Karmazin, president of Viacom, was called before a House panel two weeks ago after the Super Bowl debacle. His company owns CBS, MTV and Infinity, the radio company that helps to syndicate Stern's show. While defending the right of his company to define indecency for itself, Karmazin recently ordered his radio executives to take safeguards to prevent indecent material from reaching the air.

Federal broadcasting regulations are intended to restrict explicit content on broadcast television and radio to hours when children presumably are not watching or listening. Cable and satellite outlets, however, do not face such regulation. And premium TV cable channels pursue the most edgy entertainment, including frank depictions of sexual activity. In response, mainstream outlets have broadcast increasingly vulgar programs.

So the content of radio programs should not surprise Karmazin or any other broadcaster. Stern's show, which he syndicates in partnership with Viacom's Infinity, drew previous federal fines for lewdness and often dwells on scatological, sexual and racially charged material. The explicitness of "Bubba the Love Sponge" was a mild extension of what's been on the air for years, not a violation of normal practice. The current debate occurs at a time when major media conglomerates -- including the Chicago-based Tribune Co., owner of the Baltimore Sun and the Los Angeles Times -- are pursuing federal permission to acquire more entertainment and news outlets.

One illustration of the perceived effects of that consolidation occurred last week. News executives at WTOP radio in Washington, D.C. decided to yank the scheduled CBS news update at 8 a.m. because its earlier news report about the Stern controversy seemed designed to fuel interest in his show. "It seemed promotional more than newsworthy," said Mike McMearty, news director for WTOP. Additionally, as McMearty noted, the CBS story failed to point out its corporate ties to Infinity.

The bottom line for media giants, Gerbrandt and Schwartzman argued, remains the financial one. "They obviously are hoping for things to cool down -- and hoping they can resume their prior activities," Schwartzman said.

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