FCC: moral mafia

TV did the crime and radio is doing the time. More precisely, radio listeners are doing the time.

Justin Timberlake didn’t bare Janet Jackson’s breast on radio. However, radio is where the ramifications of the FCC’s grandstanding crackdown are most being felt. The clearest and most outrageous manifestation is Clear Channel’s decision to pull Howard Stern from six of its radio stations. Jackson flashes a breast on TV and Stern, who has been on radio for more than a quarter-century, suddenly becomes persona non grata. A university class in logic could spend a semester trying to analyze that.

Every Clear Channel executive and member of the Federal Communications Commission ought to be chained to a chair for a screening of “Lenny,” so they will at least have a clue how narrow-minded and stupid they are going to look in retrospect. They certainly don’t have a clue now.

Clear Channel’s kowtowing can be traced to a much more significant issue, media consolidation. The San Antonio-based conglomerate owns more than 1,200 stations nationwide, a death rattle for localism, which is supposed to be the heart of broadcasting. One executive in Texas has the power to dictate what will be heard in Florida, California, Kentucky and Pennsylvania. This is what happened with Stern.

Who allowed this unacceptable domination of the public airwaves? None other than the FCC.

More than a few legislators and activists are demanding a breakup of Clear Channel (a broadcast partner of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel). However, its friends at the commission have turned a deaf ear. This explains why Clear Channel is so ready to defer to the FCC’s morality posturing. This also might explain why the lineup of issue-oriented talk hosts syndicated by Clear Channel is top-heavy with champions of the Bush administration. Commission Chairman Michael Powell owes his job to the president.

Not that Powell needs much encouragement to give away the farm. His commission also voted to raise the penetration cap – the percentage of the national audience reached by network-owned TV stations – from 35 percent to 45 percent, clearly en route to 100 percent. If that is ever allowed, localism will be dead in TV, too. One executive in New York or Los Angeles will be able to decide what will be seen in more than 200 markets nationwide.

Fortunately, so many members of Congress balked at the elevated limits that the FCC had to back down. Eventually, a compromise was reached and the bar was set at 39 percent, which still is being challenged in the courts.

The spanking the FCC took on this issue is not unrelated to the indecency crackdown. Stung at being perceived as sitting in the broadcast industry’s pocket, Powell’s FCC chose the Super Bowl controversy as an opportunity to flex its muscles without doing anything truly meaningful. To borrow a corollary to one of Murphy’s Laws, when all is said and done, more will be said than done.

It would be a misnomer to describe the Super Bowl flash as the catalyst for the crackdown. In reality, it is the excuse. Self-appointed moral guardians are forever waiting for any opportunity to attempt to enforce their personal rigid codes on everyone else. The actions of Jackson and Timberlake, which were inexcusable, were like manna from heaven for the moral mafia.

The people who would like to deny others the opportunity to listen to Howard Stern or watch “NYPD Blue” have ample alternatives that fall within the parameters of their sensibilities. There are scores of religious radio stations as well as a national Disney radio network throughout the United States. The combined audience for all of them doesn’t add up to what Stern attracts every morning. Is Powell suggesting that the millions of Americans who enjoy Stern’s adult humor are all perverts?

Bud Paxson created a TV network to cater to those turned off by the content excesses of the rest of TV. The ratings are so low, a sky-writing plane would be seen by more people.

The decision of the marketplace in this instance clearly does not matter to Powell’s FCC and the lawmakers enabling its witch hunt. But they should be wary of another marketplace decision in November, which they will be unable to ignore.

-South Florida Sun-Sentinel