Stern Stuff: Here Comes the FCC
"[I]t is . . . often true that one man's vulgarity is another's lyric."
-- Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15, 25 ( 1971).
The Federal Communications Commission ( FCC) polices broadcast airwaves -- with the help of the public. Instead of monitoring the airwaves, the FCC responds to complaints by listeners. Then the FCC can haul out a heavy arsenal of weapons against what it considers broadcast indecency. Often the result is steep fines against broadcasters for raunchy words -- whether spoken or sung.
According to the FCC's current definition, "indecency" is "[l]anguage or material that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory activities of organs."1
The definition of "indecency" is vague; the fines, however, are not. They're spelled out in dollar signs and numerals. The undisputed king of FCC fines is Howard Stern, with a total of $1.7 million in fines against Infinity Broadcasting Corporation. Stern keeps falling over the "indecency" line drawn by the FCC.2 Of course, the FCC has lots of help, such as volunteer Al Westcott, who has monitored Stern's broadcasts and mailed transcripts of them to the FCC. Westcott's concern, he says, is "latchkey children, who do not have parents at home to tell them that the behavior Howard Stern is advocating is inappropriate."3
" America's No. 1 'Shock Jock,'"4Stern both entertains and offends, from his Lesbian Dial-A-Date contest5 to his Musical Crotches game. FCC Commissioner James Quello commented, "I find Howard Stern to be a rather entertaining smart ass."6 Of course, the comment appeared in print; Quello surely would not want the word