Clear Channel Communications, one of the nation’s largest owners of radio stations, has reached an agreement with the Federal Communications Commission to pay more than $1.7 million in penalties to settle a series of indecency complaints, three people briefed on the negotiations said last night.
Barring a last-minute breakdown, the total fine that Clear Channel has agreed to pay – an estimated $1.75 million – would represent the largest ever negotiated between a broadcaster and the commission.
The largest penalty previously secured by the commission against a broadcaster involved Infinity Broadcasting, which agreed in 1995 to pay $1.7 million to the commission to settle complaints against Howard Stern.
Clear Channel’s agreement with the F.C.C. also involves, in part, Mr. Stern’s actions on the airwaves. The company is expected to admit that some of the material that it broadcast on its stations – including several segments of a Stern radio show during which anal sex was discussed – was indecent, according to one person close to the negotiations. That admission could prove a problem for Infinity, a unit of Viacom. The company has maintained that however offensive Mr. Stern’s comments may be to some people, they do not meet the legal definition of indecent speech, and are thus protected by the First Amendment.
The agreement between Clear Channel and the commission would in effect settle any listener complaints made against its stations. Among the complaints are those concerning a 20-minute segment of the Stern show, much of it about anal sex, that Clear Channel broadcast last year on six of its stations; in April, the commission proposed fining the company $495,000 over that segment. (At the time, commission officials said that they had begun to examine whether it should penalize Infinity, which is Mr. Stern’s employer and which broadcast the same segment on 18 of its stations.) The agreement also covers other listener complaints against Clear Channel, many of them yet to be made public by the commission. For Clear Channel – which suspended Mr. Stern’s show on its stations in February and stopped carrying it permanently in April – the agreement represents an opportunity for political, as well as financial, finality on the issue, in an election year in which Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl breast-baring has pushed such matters to the fore.
The proposed $1.75 million in fines would be on top of the $755,000 penalty that Clear Channel agreed to pay in March because of graphic and sexually explicit material broadcast in Florida on the “Bubba the Love Sponge” program, whose host, Todd Clem, has since been dismissed.