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Burress Group to Go After Cincy Radio Station

Cincinnati- Emboldened by the reaction to Janet Jackson’s breast baring at the Super Bowl and what is considered a new stand against broadcast indecency by the Federal Communications Commission and Congress, a local group says it will file complaints within a few weeks against Cincinnati Clear Channel rock station WEBN-FM, 102.7.

“We will file approximately 35 complaints with the FCC of indecent utterances on the station over the last six months,” said Phil Burress, director of Sharonville-based Citizens for Community Values. “We are also going to be exploring the possibility of license revocation. Their license is up in July. We believe it’s about time that some of these stations be dealt with.”

Burress said the broadcasts include repeated references to oral and anal sex, and graphic sex talk with porn stars and strippers who are frequent visitors to the WEBN morning show.

The threat of the complaint comes as hearings in Congress continued on new broadcast indecency laws. It also follows by just two days Clear Channel’s firing of one of its most controversial DJs, Florida-based Todd Clem, known as Bubba the Love Sponge. Clear Channel, the nation’s largest radio company, also this week dropped the Howard Stern show from the six company stations that had been carrying it.

Clear Channel Radio President John Hogan said the Stern cancellations “drew a line in the sand with regard to protecting our listeners from indecent content.”

Clear Channel said the move reflects its new zero tolerance indecency policy that includes companywide training and automatic suspensions for any DJ accused by the FCC of violating indecency rules. The company said it would immediately fire any employee who draws an FCC fine.

The new policy has left some of its on-air talent feeling like they’ve been left to twist in the decency wind.

“There is no doubt it is having a chilling affect,” said Eddie Fingers, host of the WEBN morning show for almost 20 years. “Right now we are trying to find out exactly where the boundary is. At this stage of the game, there is just this nebulous line that apparently if crossed will result in termination.”

When Clear Channel bought out the other big radio fish, Cincinnati-based Jacor Communications, in 1996, it inherited Jacor’s programming team, considered the edgiest and most innovative in radio. It was headed by Cincinnati radio bad boy Randy Michaels, who encouraged stations to be controversial and racy.

The conservative Mays family of San Antonio, Texas, which founded and runs Clear Channel, removed Michaels from a programming position in July 2002. Insiders said the company was uncomfortable with Michaels’ programming tactics. But many Clear Channel jocks, like Clem and Fingers, always understood their marching orders to be in the edgy Michael’s mantra. In one week the company has apparently changed that.

“After years of being encouraged to not fear the line and to not worry about approaching the line, now it’s grounds for termination,” Fingers said.

Clear Channel radio personalities are waiting to find out what the company means by decency training.

“None of us know what is involved,” Fingers said. ” The company memo said we will undergo some sort of review of the acceptable versus the unacceptable. Before it was always sort of, ‘We’ll know it when we see it.’ Now I guess we are going to be told what it is.”

The threat of Citizens for Community Values complaints against WEBN is nothing new. The group has filed numerous ones in the last 10 years relating mainly to Fingers’ morning show, the “Dawn Patrol.” The FCC never found any merit in the complaints. The only time the station was fined by the FCC was five years ago, over a technical violation for airing an interview without informing the person he was on the radio.

In fact, in the last few years Burress’ group stopped filing complaints, given what it perceived as the FCC’s lack of interest in the issues the group was trying to raise.

Burress acknowledged events of the last month had changed the group’s approach.

“The Janet Jackson thing was the straw,” Burress said. “I’m not sure, reading the indecency standards, that what Janet Jackson did was illegal. But it was so offensive that people are calling for action. I am hearing a totally different tune from (FCC Chairman) Michael Powell and the FCC. Things have changed dramatically. Right now the whole nation is saying, ‘We need to clean up this stuff.'”

Burress said he and representatives of other decency groups from across the country met with Powell last summer.

“Literally thousands of complaints had been filed, and we asked why nothing had been done. At that particular time, Mr. Powell was very passive and seemed annoyed by the fact we were bringing this to his attention.”

Under FCC rules, broadcasters who use over the air signals are not allowed to air material that refers to sexual or excretory functions between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. The only regulation for cable and satellite channels is that found in obscenity laws.

Even before Janet Jackson flashed a national TV audience during the Super Bowl halftime show, the U.S. House had scheduled hearings on a proposed law that would increase the maximum fine for broadcast indecency tenfold to $275,000.

The agency on Tuesday proposed a fine of $755,000 against Bubba the Love Sponge, the largest penalty ever for radio indecency, for segments of his show that aired 26 times on Clear Channel stations in Florida.

FCC Commissioner Michael Copps was the only member of the five-person commission to oppose the fine. He said the penalty was not severe enough and suggested the FCC consider revoking the licenses of the stations that aired the segments.

Many conservative groups saw that as a signal that the FCC was getting serious again about such shock jock indiscretions.

But Burress is not convinced Clear Channel is serious about its new internal indecency policy, quoting Ronald Reagan that he will “trust, but verify.” Burress did praise the company for assuring his group and others several years ago that it will not carry sexually explicit ads on its billboards. Clear Channel is one of the leading billboard owners in the country.

Some industry observers also wonder about the sincerity of Clear Channel’s decision to drop Howard Stern. Stern’s show is owned by Viacom’s Infinity Broadcasting and actually competes with dozens of Clear Channel morning shows, such as in Cincinnati, where Stern airs on Infinity-owned WAQZ-FM. Clear Channel aired Stern in markets where Infinity owned no stations or Stern’s contract dated to previous owners. Many doubt Clear Channel would have shelved Stern if it had actually owned his show, making millions off him at dozens of its stations.

Clear Channel would seem to be sensitive to damage control since it has become the whipping boy for those who oppose media consolidation. The company’s detractors say its cost-trimming policies have homogenized radio talent and even hurt the music industry with tight playlists. Some think the company is clearly looking for political good will with its new decency pledge.

Fingers worries that the new policy from his own company has given self-styled decency groups the green light to file complaints.

“What I fear is it opens you up to a vendetta,” he said. “If a group decides to go after you, they can rain complaints on the station and maybe cost you your job.”

 

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