BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. Last month, the House of Representatives approved the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of 2004. It raises the fine per violation from 27,500 dollars to half a million dollars. This means that the FCC will have the power to levy multiple fines in the multi-millions for indiscretions on nationally syndicated shows. On Wednesday, broadcasters from around the country gathered with regulators, parents' groups and media watchdogs to mull over the issues. Oddly, the National Association of Broadcasters' summit on responsible programming, which was filled with representatives from big media, was closed to the press. But Broadcasting & Cable magazine's Bill McConnell was lurking nearby, and he suspects that this time the broadcast chiefs were not flagellating themselves at nearly the rate they were in the congressional hearings over Janet Jackson's super bowl breast.
BILL McCONNELL: They were, you know, trying to say more: Okay we hear you. Here's our point of view. We don't think that the situation is as bad as you say it is, but we know you have some concerns that are reasonable, and we think there are a few things we can do to make it better.
BOB GARFIELD: A few-- things.
BILL McCONNELL:I think eventually the broadcasters will come up with something a little bit stronger than they have now, possibly reviving some form of the old Code of Conduct, or maybe something a little bit less strict that would strongly encourage broadcasters to set up a block of time for family viewing that isn't going to have raunchy or racy programming. But I think it's going to take a while. Yesterday, Eddie Fritz, the president of the National Association of Broadcasters, said: Hey, you know, we're not going to have something in 30 days or 60 days. It's going to be a long term project. By the sound of that you can be guaranteed that nothing's going to happen immediately.
BOB GARFIELD:Or will it? While media heavies hem and haw over how to combat excessive indecency and excessive fines in the future, how are radio hosts and shock jocks reacting to the crackdown? Jesse Walker is the author of Rebels on the Air, an alternative history of radio in America, and the managing editor of Reason Magazine. In the last issue, he quotes the FCC's descriptions of a Scooby Doo sketch performed by recently-fired shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge, the FCC renders it in bureaucratese.
JESSE WALKER: The first skit begins when Shaggy tells Scooby Doo that he needs crack cocaine but has no money to buy it. Scooby Doo responds that Shaggy could -- and we bleeped out a couple of words here -- to pay for the drugs. In the next skit, Fat Albert, aka Fat Diddy Daddy, gets killed in a drive-by shooting after bragging that Jennifer Lopez had been bleeping Diddy Daddy's bleep the previous night, and it ends with: This segment contains sufficiently graphic and explicit references to sexual and excretory organs and activities to satisfy the first criterion of our contextual analysis.
BOB GARFIELD:So in January, for this and a few other programs, the FCC charged Bubba the Love Sponge with the highest fine ever levied by the commission. What has been the result of this fine throughout the country?
JESSE WALKER: One interesting thing about this fine is that it came a few days before the infamous Janet Jackson incident, and then that, of course, got everybody upset and Congress started talking, and the FCC started making more audible noises, and companies like Clear Channel and Infinity that own all these radio stations started falling all over themselves to claim that they had never realized that such stuff was going on over the airwaves and to fire people like Bubba the Love Sponge. When people aren't being fired, they've been dropped from stations. Howard Stern was famously dropped from several Clear Channel stations, although he's still being carried on, in particular, Infinity across the country.
BOB GARFIELD:Apart from fining stations, there has been talk of actually fining the performers themselves, so that if you have a morning zoo in, you know, Oshkosh, Wisconsin and you get very, very vulgar, it's not management who's going to pay the fine, but you.
JESSE WALKER: I've heard about that. I'm not sure it's going to pass. I think that it's an interesting way around the dilemma that certain conservative members of Congress might face, where they don't want to make things difficult for media companies that, perhaps, donate to their campaigns, and yet they want to punish this kind of broadcasting. On the other hand, I mean it's absurd to expect a human being to cough up the kinds of fines that they're now levying on stations. I think that a lot of them would end up being uncollectible.
BOB GARFIELD:Underlying this whole question is the fundamental hypocrisy of having shock jocks on the air to be outrageous in order to generate ratings, while there is this sort of undefinable threshold that they cannot cross where they become subject to gigantic fines. What do you suppose the calculus is, in 2004, for these guys -- they're mostly guys -- in performing day to day.
JESSE WALKER: Until Bubba the Love Sponge was fired and his website was taken down, it was proudly having a banner across the top: Listen to the Stuff the FCC Doesn't Want You to Hear or words to that effect, and there's always been like this sort of outlaw image to them. I think they imagine they're idealists and they're sort of slapping themself on the head and saying: 'You can't say that on the radio; go get 'em.' But, in fact, the reason why they were able to get away with so much from the point of view of the FCC is that over the last ten years, number one, there's been much less enforcement, and number two, where there has been enforcement, I mean there would always be a new record fine against Infinity Broadcasting for something Howard Stern said. The shows were so profitable that it was, as Michael Copp, the FCC commissioner likes to complain, considered a cost of doing business. Much changed, in terms of the calculus, is the fact that the FCC is now much more serious about cracking down on indecency, and then when Congress gets in the act, people really get worried, and the calculus is radically changed, and I think that the smart ones are maybe starting to think about what new shtick might not we be able to do until there's yet another change in the air? You know, can I go and become like a deejay or a right wing talk radio host or one of the other templates for a career as a radio broadcaster.
BOB GARFIELD: Are you getting a sense of deja vu through all of this? I mean is this like Lenny Bruce all over again?
JESSE WALKER:There used to be complaints that people would say that, you know, Lenny Bruce died so that this could happen? On the other hand, nobody's being persecuted the way Lenny Bruce was being personally persecuted. But that same sort of fear of words and that fear that there's certain topics that simply should not be discussed, even to a paying nightclub audience or to a voluntary radio listening audience, that's coming back. It's like a pendulum. It comes back every few years. The good news, for those of us who are civil libertarians is that sooner or later the pendulum is probably going to swing back the other way, but you can't always count on that, and I think it's important to stand up for the right to free speech in the First Amendment, even when it's someone who's not nearly as interesting or funny as Lenny Bruce was.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Jesse. Thanks very much.
JESSE WALKER: Alright, thanks.
BOB GARFIELD: Jesse Walker is managing editor of Reason Magazine.