The Federal Communications Commission's record indecency settlement with Clear Channel Communications Inc., released yesterday, gives the embattled radio giant a clean slate with regulators who have held it up as the example of media consolidation gone haywire.
To erase all pending indecency charges, and all listener complaints in the FCC pipeline that may have become charges, Clear Channel will write a $1.75 million check to the U.S. Treasury, the largest broadcast indecency settlement in history, the FCC and the company announced yesterday. Further, Clear Channel promised to police its airwaves, implementing a company-wide compliance plan to prevent further indecent material from airing.
The settlement comes at a time when lawmaker and consumer interest in broadcast indecency is high, after a string of racy radio and television incidents culminating with the exposure of singer Janet Jackson's right breast during the CBS telecast of the Super Bowl's halftime show in January. The FCC is investigating the broadcast to determine if CBS and its stations can be cited for indecency.
Clear Channel stations have been hit hard with indecency fines, including a $755,000 levy the company paid recently that was brought on by since-fired Florida deejay Todd Clem, whose on-air name was "Bubba the Love Sponge." Clem aired material that fantasized about explicit sex between cartoon characters, such as Scooby Doo and Shaggy. In 2001, Clem was acquitted of a charge of animal cruelty for castrating a boar on-air. Such stunts -- including some by Washington Clear Channel station WIHT (Hot 99.5) -- drew charges that the company would do anything for ratings.
But Clear Channel has sought to put on a new, more genteel public face. In February, the chain dropped Howard Stern's often-racy show from six stations and announced a zero-tolerance policy for indecency. Yesterday's settlement amounted to a mea culpa for many of its broadcasters' on-air antics.
"It was a tough negotiation, but a fair resolution," Andrew Levin, Clear Channel's chief legal officer, said in a statement regarding the deal struck with the FCC. "We didn't agree that all the complaints were legally indecent, but some clearly crossed the line and for those we have taken full responsibility."
Yesterday's agreement -- called a "consent decree" -- surpasses the $1.7 million that Viacom Inc.-owned Infinity Radio paid in 1995 to settle indecency charges against shock jock Stern's shows lodged in the late '80s and early '90s. Part of yesterday's settlement covered segments of Stern's shows that aired on Clear Channel stations in 2003.
"Through the consent decree, we have secured the highest enforcement concessions by a broadcaster in commission history," FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell said in a statement. "Not only will a substantial amount of money be submitted to the Treasury by the company, but we achieve significant commitments from the company that the fines are intended to produce."
Important for Clear Channel, the agreement not only settles nearly $800,000 in pending fines against the company; it halts the investigation of at least three dozen other incidents underway by the FCC's enforcement bureau and listener complaints yet to be examined.
Clear Channel's strategy differs from that of its biggest rival, Infinity. Mel Karmazin, outgoing president of parent company Viacom, has vowed to fight the pending indecency fines against its stations. Infinity had no comment on yesterday's announcement.
Clear Channel, on the other hand, has chosen a measure of capitulation. The San Antonio-based company became the nation's largest radio chain with more than 1,250 stations thanks to Clinton-era ownership deregulation. As such, it has been criticized for homogenizing the airwaves by gobbling up mom-and-pop radio stations, centralizing radio playlists and firing deejays.
Some, such as FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps, have tied consolidation to indecency, suggesting that centralized owners are less interested in and responsive to community standards. The FCC's new media ownership rules -- passed last June but stayed by a federal court in September -- would tighten national ownership regulation, attempting to fix what many have called the "Clear Channel problem" of widespread consolidation.