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Shock-Jock Turns Tables and Takes an Oft-Complaining Listener to Court

March 28, 2004|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

CHICAGO — A nationally syndicated radio disc jockey has filed a $3-million lawsuit against a Chicago listener who repeatedly has complained about the shock-jock's show to the Federal Communications Commission.

Erich Muller, who goes by the on-air name "Mancow," claims that David E. Smith has been trying to harass him by filing more than 60 "spurious" FCC complaints in the last two years.

The complaints were designed to interfere with Muller's business and to drive advertisers away from his show, "Mancow's Morning Madhouse," according to the suit. Muller broadcasts out of a Chicago radio station, WKQX 101.1 FM.

The lawsuit, filed last week in Cook County circuit court, also seeks to block Smith and his organization -- Citizens for Community Values of Illinois -- from submitting further complaints to the FCC.

"If you don't like it, go to a different station. Shut off the radio. Don't try to dictate your morality to the entire country," said Edwin Belz, Muller's attorney. "It's one man's crusade to put Mancow out of business."

Smith, who works as an aide to an alderwoman here, declined to comment, saying only that he had not been served with the lawsuit. He signed an e-mail to a reporter with: "If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping in a closed room with a mosquito."

So far, the FCC has cited Emmis Communications -- the Indianapolis-based company that owns WKQX -- six times since March 2000 for broadcasts deemed indecent. The company has been fined $42,000.

FCC officials, saying they have received "quite a bit" of angry e-mail about Muller's show, would not comment on whether any of the fines stemmed from Smith's filings. Many of his complaints were over sexual material and innuendoes.

The Chicago skirmish comes amid a growing national debate over decency and programming, which exploded after pop star Janet Jackson's breast was exposed during the Super Bowl halftime show.

Yet experts said the Muller lawsuit is particularly unusual.

"Who sues their listeners?" said Paul Levinson, chairman of communication and media studies at Fordham University in New York. "The public is entitled to its point of view, and it's preposterous to sue them just because they don't like what you're saying. It's as ridiculous as what Congress is trying to do to crack down on broadcasters."

The House voted this month to increase fines for violations of federal indecency rules. The House bill proposes that fines jump from $27,500 to a maximum of $500,000 per violation and requires a hearing to revoke a broadcaster's license after the third offense.

Disc jockeys and other radio personalities also could face fines if their actions are determined to be willful. A similar proposal is being considered by the Senate, and a combined bill is expected to be drafted and sent to the White House.

While politicians say they are heeding the concerns of parents, critics argue that the legislation could violate the 1st Amendment. Under current FCC rules, radio and television stations are not allowed to broadcast "obscene" programming at any time.

But that's different from programming categorized as indecent, or "patently offensive sexual or excretory references that do not rise to the level of obscenity," according to the FCC. The commission states that indecent material cannot be broadcast when kids are more likely to be listening, or specifically between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.

Radio officials say the current debate is reminiscent of a government push to clean up radio and TV in the late 1980s and early '90s. Then, the FCC cracked down on numerous stations and shock-jocks, including Howard Stern in New York and Steve Dahl in Chicago.

Much of the back-and-forth being heard now, legal and communications experts said, is the same as it was more than a decade ago.

"This has become a cycle," said Jeremy Lipschultz, assistant director of the University of Nebraska at Omaha's school of communication. "The government pushes. The broadcasters back off. And over the years, little changes."

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