Delays, Low Fines Weaken FCC Attack on Indecency

By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 10, 2005

On the morning of June 3, 1996, Howard Stern hosted an explicit discussion between adult-film star Jenna Jameson and her father on a nationally syndicated radio show, broadcast to more than 10 million listeners.

It didn't take long for the conversation to go from tasteless to downright vulgar.

The Federal Communications Commission, under Democratic Chairman Reed E. Hundt, took one year to determine that the radio routine violated the agency's indecency regulations. But nearly four years and two FCC chairmen later, in February 2001, the $6,000 fine was rescinded "due to passage of time," FCC records note.

The FCC's actions were hardly an aberration. A Washington Post analysis of all 92 known proposed indecency fines shows that the agency's record of policing the airwaves has been undermined by plodding investigations, insufficient fine amounts and inconsistent follow-up.

The agency's role as broadcast nanny has come under greater scrutiny in recent months as consumers and lawmakers grow concerned about the increasingly coarse content of radio and television -- last year, the FCC received more than 1 million complaints about programs. Broadcasters say the FCC's content guidelines are too tough and arbitrarily applied while some lawmakers, viewers and interest groups blame the agency for being too lax.

The issue has even split FCC officials serving on the same commission, hindering the process.

Some chairmen made it a priority to collect fines; others let the penalties languish until the agency's five-year statute of limitations voided them. None of the chairmen was quick about it. The record shows that an average of 16 months passes from the broadcast date of an incident to the issuance of an indecency ruling. One case took 56 months to resolve.

The FCC is preparing to release a wave of backlogged decisions in the next few weeks after nearly a year of silence, and agency officials promise that the process will speed up.

"I am concerned by the length of time it historically has taken for the commission to act on a complaint," said Kevin J. Martin, a Republican who became chairman in March. "Since I became chairman, we have been working to develop a process to reduce that time frame."

The process can drag on because of the time it takes to secure tapes and transcripts from broadcasters and the lengthy legal wrangling that can ensue. But slow-footed investigations have not been the agency's only problem.

The size of the fines appears to have had little lasting deterrent value for giant media conglomerates that collect hundreds of millions of dollars in profits. For instance, just one year before the Stern broadcast with the Jamesons, Stern's boss -- Infinity Broadcasting Corp. -- paid $1.7 million to settle multiple indecency rulings against the shock jock.

Part of the problem, the agency says, is that fines are too low -- a maximum of $32,500. If broadcasters refuse to pay, the cases are turned over for enforcement to the Department of Justice, which has little incentive to pursue such small fines, members of Congress have said. Of four proposed fines turned over to the department, it collected two and refused to pursue two.

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