Howard Stern for President! Or Vice President! Jesse Ventura, former governor of my home state (ugh, so embarrassing) was on the Stern Show this week to pitch Howard on being his running mate in 2016. It’s certainly a joke, but if this government shutdown goes on much longer I may have to seriously consider them. And if Howard were to make it to the White House, how much fun would he have messing the FCC?
To those of us of a certain age, Howard Stern’s battles with the FCC are legendary. For a younger generation, they may never have known Stern before he made his move to satellite radio and a world without FCC censorship. He now lives in a world where he can curse with abandon (not that he curses much) and discuss “adult” topics in great detail (he does do that).
Back in the day, on terrestrial radio, Stern was often the focus of the FCC’s crackdowns. Always one to feel persecuted, Stern even released a box set of bits from his radio show that had either been heavily edited because of government regulations or that had actually resulted in FCC fines.
But while Stern was a target of the government’s scrutiny, radio stations in other languages were getting off with barely a glance. For example, during a big crackdown at the beginning of 2004 (spurred on by the Janet Jackson/Justin Timberlake incident at the Superbowl), the FCC levied $1.5 million in fines against English-speaking broadcasters. Meanwhile, some of the Spanish-language stations were going far beyond anything Stern would have dared, yet the FCC wasn’t paying attention.
The FCC’s apparent inability to spot inappropriate words isn’t just limited to Spanish. The brilliant Joss Whedon, in his short-lived Firefly, was able to use some pretty foul language thanks to his incorporation of Mandarin Chinese into his vision of the future. If Howard had said any of these things on terrestrial radio, the FCC would have been all over him. But Firefly got away with it, thanks to its cursing in another language! (By the way, my favorite expression is number 9 on the list.)
The FCC’s ability to regulate radio and television is based on broadcasters’ use of the airwaves to distribute their content. The idea was that the airwaves are a public resource, like a federal forest, and the people were allowing radio and television broadcasters to use them. In exchange, the broadcasters had to agree to abide by certain conditions put forth by the FCC. Cable and satellite providers, on the other hand, don’t use public resources so they don’t have to agree to comply with FCC requirements (although they still have to comply with other state and federal laws, like obscenity laws).
Of course, the broadcasters still challenge how the FCC regulates them. Just last summer, the Supreme Court sided with Fox and ABC against the FCC. The FCC had fined Fox for fleeting expletives and ABC for partial nudity and the Supreme Court ruled on behalf of the networks, but only because they found that the FCC hadn’t provided them with proper notice. The justices ignored the underlying question, however, of how much authority the FCC still has over the broadcast networks.
But if Howard were in office that all could change…he might not be able to get rid of the FCC but he would certainly do his darndest to stop them from patrolling the airwaves. Maybe then he’d even move back to terrestrial radio (given his disputes with his current employer).