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The FCC is ratcheting up the price of free speech

October 11, 2004|James Dawson

According to Sirius Radio, Howard Stern will have to bring 1 million new subscribers to that satellite service to cover the cost of his new five-year contract with the company ["Stern Vows He'll Rise Above FCC," by Scott Collins, Oct. 7].

In other words, a million people will have to lay out $12.95 per month starting in 2006 to hear a radio show that much of the country now hears for nothing. The difference is that Howard and company will be able to use four-letter words without fearing the wrath of the Federal Communications Commission, which has not tried to regulate the content of satellite broadcasts.

I've been a Howard Stern fan for more than 20 years. The only times I listen to other stations during morning drive are during Stern's infamously endless commercial breaks. I am the very definition of a loyal Stern listener, if not a fanatic one.

Despite this, I won't be shelling out serious money to Sirius. Sorry.

Much as I would like to go on hearing such cultural pearls as Stern's "Wheel of Sex," "Biggest Hemorrhoid Contest" and "Intern Beauty Pageant," I can't see paying $155.40 per year for the privilege. A guy has to prioritize when gas is over two bucks a gallon. If one fewer program option on the radio of my beat-up '87 Honda equals 10 trips to Chevron, all I have to say is, "Fill 'er up."

Then again, I'm the kind of cost-conscious consumer who regards even cable TV as an unnecessary indulgence. I've heard there is some show called "The Sopranos" on HBO that's supposed to be pretty good. People also claim caviar is tasty, but that doesn't mean I will be adding it to my shopping list any time soon.

Stern has every right to charge whatever he wants for his show, of course. And there may be enough pound-foolish spendthrifts willing to part with 40-some pennies per day to make his venture wildly successful. Not everyone is as careful with money (OK, "mind-bogglingly cheap") as I am, after all.

Still, it's a shame that the threat of government censorship and punitive fines have hounded one of the country's top radio personalities from the public airwaves.

On the day of his announcement, Stern insisted that the religious right and the FCC could not claim any sort of victory as a result of his upcoming move. This is belied by the fact that Stern has said for months he would not be renewing his current contract specifically because of the chilling effect that government interference has had on his show.

The good news is that Stern will be escaping the jurisdiction of an Orwellian bureaucracy that determines what Americans are allowed to see and hear on broadcast radio and TV. If he watches his mouth over the next 15 months, avoiding anything the FCC might construe as indecent, he may even survive with his bank account intact.

The bad news is that it is only a matter of time before our fair leaders decide they have just as much right to regulate satellite radio as terrestrial radio. Lawmakers already have been making noises about bringing cable TV under the FCC's oppressive thumb. It's not much of a leap from "Sopranos"-land to Sirius.

Something is very wrong when the only place in American radio where speech is free is where it costs money.

But maybe I should just shut up and hand over my cash. After all, isn't that the American way?

James Dawson is a former news editor of Radio & Records and former editor of the National Assn. of Broadcasters magazine Radioactive. He lives in Tarzana.

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