Expensive Speech

Clear Channel settles its fines with the FCC, and agrees to censor itself so the government doesn't have to.

| Fri Jun. 11, 2004 2:00 AM EDT

After opening with a rush of news coverage, the Federal Communications Commission’s investigations into broadcast indecency sank below the news radar in recent weeks. But it's worth noting that the settlement reached on Wednesday between the FCC and Clear Channel Communications represents a major step in the ongoing battle over what does and doesn't belong on the airwaves.

Aready faced with $797,000 in fines, and with about 200 additional complaints pending, Clear Channel, America’s largest radio conglomerate, reached a record settlement with the FCC. In exchange for a payment of $1.75 million and an admission that it violated FCC indecency laws, Clear Channel settles all its outstanding fines and -- perhaps more importantly -- erases all pending complaints against the company and its stations.

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In exchange, Clear Channel -- which owns more than 1,200 radio stations nationwide -- also agreed to abide more strictly by FCC rules. As FCC Chairman Michael Powell said in a statement:

"…Clear Channel has now formally admitted that it violated the law and has made binding commitments to clean up its act, including preventive measures such as training for on-air personalities and employees that participate in programming decisions and the use of time delays in its broadcasts. In addition, those accused of violating the Commission’s rules will be suspended and if ultimately found to violate our rules, will be terminated."

Wednesday’s settlement brings a relatively quiet close to a tumultuous year for San Antonio-based Clear Channel. Once Janet Jackson’s halftime show at the Super Bowl launched increased FCC scrutiny of broadcasters, Clear Channel found itself a target. On Feb. 25, the company issued a "zero-tolerance" policy:

"If the FCC accuses us of wrongdoing by issuing a proposed fine, we will take immediate action," Clear Channel President Mark Mays said. "As broadcast licensees, we are fully responsible for what our stations air, and we intend to make sure all our DJs and programmers understand what is and is not appropriate on Clear Channel radio shows."

To make sure employees "understood," Clear Channel took them off the air before the FCC did. In February, it dropped Howard Stern’s syndicated talk show from six stations, citing the content of an interview Stern conducted with Rick Solomon, co-star of the infamous Paris Hilton video. The decision to drop Stern came one day after Clear Channel fired Florida deejay Todd "Bubba the Love Sponge" Clem –- and one day before Clear Channel CEO John Hogan appeared before a House subcommittee on broadcast speech regulations.

But those decisions didn’t stop the fines. Clear Channel paid a reported $755,000 FCC fine earlier this year for a Clem show in which the host explicitly described copulation between cartoon characters, and received a $495,000 fine in April – included as part of Wednesday’s settlement – based on complaints about a Stern show that aired in 2003. Despite the fines, Powell praised the company’s steps toward self-censorship as a way to take the decision out of the FCC’s hands:

"As the Commission is tasked with walking the delicate balance of protecting the interests of the First Amendment with the need to protect our children, it is incumbent upon us to make best efforts to avoid the realization of our forefathers’ concerns.

"This task is made easier when our licensees wrestle the difficult decisions away from the government and take the responsibility for what they broadcast over our nation’s airwaves. In the case of Clear Channel Communications, they have done just that through the substantial commitments agreed to in this consent decree."

While Clear Channel chose to go along with the FCC, its main competitor has vowed to fight the fines. According to the Chicago Tribune, Infinity Broadcasting - which paid a then-record $1.7 million settlement in 1995 - has not yet paid any FCC fines dating back to 2000, prompting a March 12 forfeiture penalty from the FCC. As John Dunbar of the Center for Public Integrity told the Tribune, "You really have two very different corporate cultures at work here. On one hand, you're seeing Infinity fight, and on the other, you're seeing Clear Channel settle."

Smaller radio groups like Entercom Communications and Emmis Communications are also appealing fines, and a pending lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union challenges the FCC on the grounds that the commission has overstepped its bounds. So while the Clear Channel chapter is closed for now, the story of the FCC crackdown is far from over.