Brownback: Stern Is Indecent

An unmollified Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) said Viacom Inc. president Mel Karmazin still hasn't justified keeping Howard Stern on the air, and he is wrong if he thinks a Feb. 24 broadcast was not indecent.

In a letter to Karmazin being sent Wednesday, Brownback said Karmazin's March 12 letter defending Stern is "inconsistent" with Infinity Broadcasting Corp.'s policy -- stated in a memo to Infinity radio general managers -- that "any station airing programming that has any sexual or excretory content needs to take whatever steps are necessary to make sure that the programming is not even arguably indecent [emphasis Brownback's].

Brownback, who sponsored the tough new indecency enforcement bill being teed up in the Senate, said that the Stern broadcast not only appears to violate Infinity policy, but is indecent under current FCC guidelines, with an emphasis on the "patently offensive" language in the rules.

At issue was a Feb. 24 Stern show in which Paris Hilton's sexual escapades were discussed in some detail and a caller used the N-word and racial slurs.

Brownback included a transcript of the on-air exchange that prompted Clear Channel to pull Stern and prompted Brownback to ask why Infinity did not. Karmazin responded that it was because the company had determined the broadcast was not indecent.

According to a Hill source, Brownback's latest letter, as drafted by staffers, did not initially include the transcript because staffers did not want to put "such language" on Senate letterhead, but Brownback insisted.

Brownback refers to the transcript specifically in the letter, saying "I trust you will agree that the broadcast contains sexual content." 

Brownback also cited a March 24 Wall Street Journal article in which Karmazin defended Stern saying he "absolutely stand[s] for what Howard is doing."

"Is his Feb. 24 broadcast something you stand for," Brownback asked, though Karmazin has arguably already said it was.

The senator raises the station license specter in the last paragraph:

"It is my understanding that this is not an isolated incident. Are these types of broadcasts consistent with your public interest obligation to maintain a standard of decency as a licensed user of the public airwaves?"

Brownback was busy on the indecency front Wednesday. He addressed a National Association of Broadcasters summit on responsible programming, where he said self-regulation would not be enough to satisfy Congress. He also took a swipe at another Viacom company, CBS, reading and endorsing a viewer letter to CBS that suggested its Super Bowl half-time show gave ammunition to terrorists in the "cultural war" being waged in Iraq.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.