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Really Hot Air 

Viacom sucks up to FCC over Howard Stern’s indecent exposure

Thursday, Mar 4 2004
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Photo by Jack Gould

As of this moment, Al Franken’s Bush-bashing book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right, is ranked 28 on Amazon. That’s 28 out of thousands and thousands of books listed on Amazon. So, none of you crazy liberals can tell me we’re living in a fascist state with no freedom of information.

Anyway, it so happens that Howard Stern, a former Bush supporter, gushed about the book last week to his bajillion fans — even though in the book Franken calls him a McCarthyite. “You know what?” Stern said. “If Al says it, it must be true, because I love the book, and he seems to be right-on about everything . . . If you read this book, you will never vote for George W. Bush. I think I’m one of those ‘anybody but Bush’ guys now.”

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Michael Moore, Howard Stern, Dennis Miller — they’re here, they jeer . . . get used to it. ELLA TAYLOR on why Michael Moore won’t (and shouldn’t) shut up, plus MARC COOPER’s liberal problems with Moore. BRENDAN BERNHARD on the pro-Bush Dennis Miller.

Things are just getting so weird. I mean, thanks to Bush’s divisive regime, we’re in a situation right now where people like Al Franken, Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh are actually sort of allies. Due to one bad boob job and election-year desperation, a non sequitur political battle is on over indecency in broadcasting.

I’m not a Howard Stern fan or anything, but it’s not because he’s tasteless. He’s just not that funny — and his show is incredibly slow moving. Whatever. Nobody’s forcing it down my throat. I vote with my radio dial and that’s fine. As his boss, Viacom prez Mel Karmazin, once chastised me about the neo-shitty KROQ: “Instead of bitching about it, just shut the radio off if [you] don’t like it.”

It’s funny now to see Karmazin appearing before congressional indecency hearings shouting about cracking down on radio filth (which naturally includes the Stern show). Apparently, the freedom to be shitty on his stations is not so unlimited after all — at least not when the people complaining about it are members of a right-wing administration. In light of the whole Janet deal, it looks like the FCC will start fining radio much more heavily for decency infractions — and since Viacom is part of CBS, they’re freaking out. And it’s not only fines they’ve got to worry about. Like all radio thugs, Infinity, part of Viacom’s communications empire, must stay in the good graces of Washington if it wants to achieve further media consolidation — which, of course, it does.

Karmazin says Infinity is instating a zero-tolerance policy on smut as of last week. Clear Channel has gone further, dropping Stern’s show cold and bending over before Congress — Clear Channel Radio CEO John Hogan told Congress he was suddenly “ashamed” of the crap Clear Channel has been airing for years. (Good God, man! If you’re going to be a cynical smut peddler, at least be a proud one.)

So far Karmazin says he’ll hang onto Stern. After all, without Stern, Infinity would have considerably less buying power in its ceaseless lobbying for consolidation. (Said Karmazin in 2001: “We were very active in lobbying for the Telecommunications Act of 1996 . . . We were so aggressive trying to get the rules tilted our way. And by the way, we think that there’s still a need for further deregulation.”)

It’s pretty ironic: A media giant that has fought for ever greater size and power — and which built its house partly on indecency — now finds itself a victim of its own trashy grandiosity. The Telecom Act of 1996 handed over the airwaves to a few corporations. That concentrated the wealth but alienated listeners, and radio has been losing its audience ever since. It’s not surprising that radio programmers have turned to increasingly sleazy content to grab a dwindling listenership.

Like I said, I’m no Howard Stern fan, but it seems unfair that a guy who was hired precisely to be trashy is now being punished for holding up his end of the bargain.

Obviously, it’s also a bit retarded for the federal government to try and determine what is and isn’t offensive to consumers. As Limbaugh said after his bosses at Clear Channel dropped Stern, “You know, I’m in the free speech business here, my friends. I couldn’t survive without it. And it is one thing for a company in business to determine whether or not they’re going to be party to it. It is quite another thing for a government.”

At the same time, Washington’s shrill reaction to everyday tastelessness has got to be a boost for Stern — who banks on an outlaw rep. (Stern once released a CD called Crucified by the FCC, which contained censored bits from his show and featured cover art of Stern carrying a cross.) Last week he waxed heroic on his show. “They are so afraid of me and what this show represents,” he said. “I don’t think I’m going to last a month.”

That Crucified By the FCC thing reminded me of Lenny Bruce’s What I Was Arrested For. The record, which my high school boyfriend and I discovered one night while blazing on mushrooms, contained all the routines for which Bruce was busted 40-odd years ago, including such classics as “To Is a Preposition,” “Come Is a Verb” and “Dirty Toilet.”

It seems almost inconceivable today, but Bruce’s career was more or less derailed by a single word, cocksucker. (Okay, the heroin didn’t help.) Yet his visionary wordsmithery paved the way for Stern and all of Stern’s copycats.

I mean, Stern may get bitch-slapped or even lose his job, but he’s not going to be sentenced to four months in prison for “word crimes.” But Bruce intentionally forced the issues of language and indecency with a deeper agenda: He was a linguistic freedom fighter, defender of our language’s unloved stepchildren. Bruce spouted all the worst words — nigger, kike, dyke, etc. — until they lost their received meaning. Don’t fear the words, he said. Fear what’s behind them. That’s really what got him arrested. And that’s also why his recorded material is still so great. (Bruce was recently exonerated by the state of New York for his obscenity “crimes.” In fact, the governor proclaimed the pardon was an affirmation of personal freedom and the First Amendment.)

Unlike Lenny Bruce, though, Howard Stern is no revolutionary. His agenda is much more limited: self-promotion and titillation. In fact, Viacom couldn’t have hoped for a better way to make Stern still seem provocative than this whole silly mess.

Stern must sense that he has few options left for real relevancy — in any case, his new campaign against George W. Bush is probably the most “shocking” move he’s made in years. (“This regime has gotten absolutely bizarre, between Ashcroft, Cheney, Bush, Powell and his son . . . The fascist, right-wing a-holes are taking over the country.”) And it can’t be coincidental that Clear Channel — which has old Texas ties to the Bush family, organized pro-war rallies, and regularly licks FCC chairman Michael Powell’s ass — suddenly decided Stern was “indecent” when he began to turn against Bush.

You want to know what’s really indecent? Having to listen to the same 10 awful bands every day on Star 98 and KROQ. Talk about corrupting children.

Reach the writer at ksullivan@laweekly.com

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