WASHINGTON – For the second time in a month, lawmakers on Capitol Hill were hearing testimony Thursday on whether some radio shows are partaking in free speech or filth.
Top executives, including Clear Channel Radio (search) CEO John Hogan, told House members that they have already instituted longer tape delays and other efforts to make sure they have the time to delete unexpected and potentially offensive material out of live shows.
Hogan said his company has adopted a zero-tolerance policy, which it employed after it was fined $755,000, the largest penalty ever for radio, over the on-air antics of Florida deejay Todd Clem, also known as Bubba the Love Sponge (search).
Hogan apologized for Bubba's graphic discussions of sex and drugs.
"As a broadcaster, as the CEO and as the father of a 9-year-old girl, I'm ashamed to be associated in any way with those words. They're tasteless, they're vulgar, they should not, do not and will not represent what our radio stations are all about," he said.
"We were wrong to air that material," Hogan said. "I accept responsibility for our mistake and my company will live with the consequences of its actions."
Clear Channel fired the disc jockey Tuesday, then announced the next day new indecency policy Wednesday that includes companywide training, possible fines against deejays, and automatic suspensions for anyone accused by the Federal Communications Commission (search) of violating indecency rules on the air.
Incoming House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton, R-Texas, praised Clear Channel's actions. "That sets a good standard," he said.
Hogan's testimony came one day after the 1,200-station Clear Channel network made the decision to pull Howard Stern's (search) morning radio show off six stations that carry it, including in major markets like Miami, San Diego and Pittsburgh.
Company officials said Stern disregarded the company's effort to limit indecency.
"Clear Channel drew a line in the sand today with regard to protecting our listeners from indecent content and Howard Stern's show blew right through it," Hogan said in a news release. "It was vulgar, offensive, and insulting, not just to women and African-Americans but to anyone with a sense of common decency."
Clear Channel pulled Stern, saying it was upset by graphic sexual discussions as well as a racial slur a caller made during Stern's interview with Rick Salomon, former boyfriend of socialite Paris Hilton (search). Stern argued that he did nothing wrong, and accused Clear Channel of being afraid of him and his show.
"I could blow my stack. I'm trying to be cryptic," he said. "To tell you the truth, I don't know what's going on. They are so afraid of me and what this show represents."
Stern, however, works for Infinity Broadcasting (search), which syndicates the show, and in 1995 paid the largest cumulative fine to date, $1.7 million, for violations by Stern's show. He continues to be on the air in 75 other markets.
In the wake of the recent discussions on broadcast decency, Infinity has asked its 120 radio stations to increase efforts to avoid indecent programming, such as using a seven-second delay on shows with live talk, spokesman Dana McClintock said.
Thursday's hearing is the second this month — the first came following the controversial Super Bowl halftime show in which millions of viewers saw one of Janet Jackson's breasts when Justin Timberlake ripped off part of her costume.
After that event, the House Energy and Commerce Telecommunications and the Internet Subcommittee (search) heard from Mel Karmazin, president of CBS and UPN parent Viacom Inc. The panel then voted to increase the maximum fine for indecency from $27,500 to $275,000.
"True and lasting change will only be achieved if the broadcast community recommits to its public service roots and its tradition of abiding by community standards of decency," Powell wrote, urging a return to a voluntary code of conduct, which was dropped in 1982 under Reagan administration pressure.
CBS, Fox and NBC wrote back to Powell, outlining steps the television networks were taking: Airing live programs on time delays, displaying ratings for programs on their Web sites, reviewing standards and practices, launching ad campaigns to let parents know about the V-chip (search), and reminding affiliate stations they may reject network programming viewed as unsuitable for their communities.
ABC has not yet responded to Powell, but network president Alex Wallau told lawmakers Thursday said he would also support a campaign to educate viewers about the V-chip.
"We believe strongly that we have a responsibility to enable our viewers to make informed choices about the programs that they watch and that they want their children to watch," he said.
Under FCC rules and federal law, radio stations and over-the-air television channels cannot air material that refers to sexual and excretory functions between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., when children may be tuning in. The rules do not apply to cable and satellite channels and satellite radio.
Dr. Frank Wright, president of the National Religious Broadcasters (search), questioned how long the broadcasters' concern about indecency will last.
"Some of this hand-wringing in public is from the very people who have brought us a rogue's gallery of shock jocks," said Wright, whose association of Christian radio and TV broadcasters counts 1,700 members.
Also testifying on Thursday were executives from Fox, NBC and Pax.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.