WHILE driving her four young children to school one morning in
Detroit, Terry Rakolta turned on the car radio. On three stations,
talk-show hosts were discussing human sexual organs, remarking on
excretory functions, or using profanity.
Had she been driving in Los Angeles, New York City,
Philadelphia, Dallas, Buffalo, Chicago, or other major cities,
so-called "shock jocks" would have been filling the airwaves there,
too, with talk that the United States Supreme Court and the Federal
Communications Commission (FCC) have defined as indecent. Many of
the programs are the top-rated shows in their markets.
The large and growing numbers of AM and FM radio stations across
the US offering sexually graphic and titillating programming are
challenging the legal definition of decency under the free-speech
rights of the First Amendment. The values the programs accept raise
questions for many about the stations' responsibility to the public
Even while the public, including children, tunes into the
programs by the millions, some broadcasters and public-interest
groups predict that a new Supreme Court definition of "indecency"
on the public airwaves may be the ultimate result.
Recently, the FCC imposed a fine of $600,000 on Infinity
Broadcasting Corporation, the parent company of WXRK-FM in New York
City and one of the nation's largest radio companies. The station
is home to the shockmeister of the shock jocks, Howard Stern. His
program is the No. 1-rated radio show in New York in the morning
time slot, and is also No. 1 in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and
Washington, D.C. More than 3.5 million people listen to Mr. Stern,
according to an Arbitron survey. The fine is the largest ever
imposed on a broadcaster.
A 20-page transcript
The FCC complaint against Infinity, the result of listener
complaints, included 20 pages of transcripts quoting Mr. Stern's
sexually explicit on-air discussions with guests. Infinity has
until Feb. 16 to respond to the complaint before the fine is levied.
Some broadcasters feel caught between FCC actions, which they
believe have a chilling effect on free speech, and the industry's
need to police itself. "In order to enjoy First Amendment rights,
we have to protect the worst among us," says Robert Fox, chief
executive officer of KVEN-AM and KHAY-FM in Ventura, Calif., and a
board member of the National Association of Broadcasters. "We have
to protect those voices that cause disagreement, or bring a type of
humor some people don't enjoy. …