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FCC Threatens WKRK-FM's License

The FCC appears to be losing patience with Viacom's Infinity Radio, which has employed some of the industry's most notorious shock jocks and, over the past decade, has been ordered to pay millions in fines for indecent programming.

Last week, regulators threatened to launch a rare license-revocation proceeding for future violations by Infinity, the country's second-largest radio group, as part of an order explaining a $27,500 fine against Infinity's WKRK-FM Detroit.

The fine was levied for a 4:30-5 p.m. segment of the Jan. 9, 2002, Deminski & Doyle
show, in which nine callers each described a different extreme or violent sexual act. Infinity has the right to appeal before the sanction becomes official.

"Additional serious violations by Infinity may well lead to initiation of a revocation proceeding," the FCC warned, meaning the station could lose its license.

Although many radio groups have absorbed FCC indecency fines as a cost of business, threat of a license revocation may create more worry among company execs. WKRK-FM, a talker doing roughly $8 million in annual revenues, could be worth as much as $45 million, estimated an industry analyst who asked not to be named.

The decision also could lead to much larger indecency fines, especially for raunchy call-in shows. The FCC said that, going forward, it holds the right to treat indecent material aired from each caller as a separate violation of agency rules rather than levy just a single fine for the entire program.

In this case, the FCC found WKRK-FM's transgression so great that it bumped up its standard $7,000 indecency fine to the maximum $27,500 permitted by law for a single violation. WKRK could have been fined as much as $243,000 if the nine calls had been treated as distinct transgressions.

Despite the stepped-up penalty and revocation warning, Commissioners Michael Copps and Kevin Martin said their colleagues did not go far enough. Both said a higher fine was warranted, and Copps argued that a revocation hearing should be initiated immediately. "I wonder when this commission will finally take a firm stand against broadcast's 'race to the bottom' as ... the public's airwaves get progressively coarser and more violent."

Under FCC rules, indecent broadcasts depicting sexual or excretory functions in a manner intended to pander, titillate and shock are prohibited between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. The WKRK-FM broadcast appears almost tailored to fit that definition, warning children and even women away, then proceeding with a string of sexual and excretory descriptions. One of the sex acts described on the program was called the "Tony Danza," which calls for a male partner to smack a woman to "show her who's the boss." Some other described acts were extremely graphic and violent, and several involved defecation on a partner.

Infinity officials had little to say about the revocation threat or the fine.

"We've been offered an opportunity to respond, and we intend to do so," said company spokesman Dana McClintock. During the initial investigation, Infinity argued that the FCC's indecency rules violate free-speech protections.

Infinity's on-air personalities have been among the most high-profile shock jocks over the past decade. Infinity stations were fined $1.7 million in 1995 to settle a series of indecency cases involving Howard Stern. Most recently, WNEW-FM New York generated scores of complaints when its "Opie & Anthony" described an alleged sex act on the grounds of St. Patrick's Cathedral. An FCC investigation into the stunt is pending.