The Federal Communications Commission has reached a record-setting, nearly $2 million settlement with Clear Channel Communications Inc. that would clear the radio giant of all charges of indecency lodged against it, including on-air remarks made by shock jock Howard Stern, according to government and radio industry sources.
Stern was the cause of the previous record settlement between the FCC and a radio company. In 1995, Viacom Inc.-owned Infinity Broadcasting, which syndicates Stern's show in 35 cities, including Washington, paid the FCC $1.7 million to wipe away indecency charges against the popular host. Clear Channel dropped Stern's show from six stations in February.
The deal, which could be announced as early as today, is the result of months of negotiations between the FCC and Clear Channel, the nation's largest radio company, with more than 1,250 stations, according to the sources, who declined to be identified because the details of the agreement have not been finalized.
Perhaps most important, one source said, the deal would cover not only Clear Channel's outstanding fines but also dozens of listener complaints in the FCC's indecency pipeline that have not been ruled on. If those complaints were to result in fines, they could cost the radio company millions.
In April, the FCC levied a $495,000 fine against six Clear Channel stations for sexually explicit remarks made by Stern during an April 2003 broadcast. Stern is heard in the Washington area on Infinity's WJFK.
In March, the FCC fined three Clear Channel stations, including Washington's DC101, $247,000 for sexual material broadcast by morning show host Elliot Segal.
In January, the FCC hit six Clear Channel stations with a $755,000 fine for sexual material aired in July, November and December 2001 by since-fired Florida deejay Todd Clem, who calls himself "Bubba the Love Sponge."
After the FCC's enforcement bureau levies a fine, a broadcaster can choose to pay it, contest it or negotiate a settlement. It takes a majority vote of the FCC's five commissioners to demand a fine or accept a settlement, such as the one crafted between the FCC and Clear Channel lawyers Wiley Rein & Fielding.
The FCC's three Republican commissioners -- Chairman Michael K. Powell, Kevin J. Martin and Kathleen Q. Abernathy -- voted for the settlement, according to sources on both sides. Democratic Commissioner Jonathan S. Adelstein agreed in part but Democrat Michael J. Copps voted against the settlement, according to FCC sources, instead wanting each complaint against Clear Channel to be examined rather than grouped into a universal settlement.
The settlement wipes the slate clean for Clear Channel, which, after dumping Stern, instituted a zero-tolerance policy for on-air indecency and has sent more than 6,500 radio programmers and on-air talent through "responsible broadcaster" training.
The deal is likely to be criticized by Democrats who draw links between the Republican-controlled FCC, the White House and Clear Channel. Executives at the San Antonio-based company have been large contributors to the campaigns of President Bush and other Republicans.
If a listener complaint is verified, the FCC can fine a broadcaster for a violation of the decency standards, which dictate that sexually explicit or scatological material cannot be broadcast on radio or television stations between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. Cable and satellite television and radio broadcasts are excluded from FCC decency oversight.
The FCC -- responding to calls from Congress and parents' groups -- has been cracking down on indecency in recent years. More fines have been issued during Powell's three-year chairmanship than under any other chairman.
In the past, the FCC has fined broadcasters for each show in which any number of indecency violations may have occurred -- a maximum of $27,500 per show. But the FCC has said in recent months that it would begin fining broadcasters per utterance of indecent material, meaning one show could receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines. The $495,000 fine against Stern's show was the first issued on a per-utterance basis.
Further, two bills in Congress would muscle up the FCC's fining ability, allowing it to charge broadcasters up to $275,000 per violation.
Officials for the company and the FCC declined to comment yesterday.