Reregulation Blues


Last October 26, new Federal Communications Commission chief Alfred Sikes fined four radio stations for broadcasting "indecent material" before 8:00 P.M. and threatened fines or license suspensions against four others. The FCC also voted unanimously to investigate a 24-hour ban on "indecent" broadcasting, as Congress had recommended in 1988.

This crackdown is a departure for the FCC, which removed most content regulations from radio and television broadcasters six days before Ronald Reagan's 1981 inauguration. The FCC contended that listeners and advertisers should determine what programming is appropriate.

Under Reagan, FCC Chairmen Mark Fowler and Dennis Patrick took programming deregulation further, culminating with the 1987 repeal of the "Fairness Doctrine." Before Sikes took office, broadcasters faced only two content restrictions: They could never air the "seven dirty words" made famous by comedian George Carlin. And they couldn't broadcast programs that violated the Supreme Court's definition of "indecent material" ("patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards") between the hours of 6:00 A.M. and 8:00 P.M., when children are most likely to tune in.

But the new FCC restrictions seem more arbitrary, which worries on-air personalities. Barry Hansen, also known as Dr. Demento, the novelty-song impresario, is frustrated because "the FCC carries around this big stick without telling us the rules of the game. It's much like the federal government saying we will repeal all the speed limits nationwide but we'll continue to arrest people when we feel they're driving too fast."

Sikes fined talk show host Tom Leykis of KFI-AM in Los Angeles $6,000 for three comments made by callers, not Leykis himself. Boston talk show host David Brudnoy says that this is another change in policy: The FCC normally hasn't punished stations for their callers' off-color comments. The agency, says Brudnoy, considered such incidents "part of the inevitable danger of running a live radio show." The new regime in Washington seems to think otherwise.

Leykis contends that the FCC cannot consistently regulate the 10,000 American radio stations. He says another Los Angeles station played a song during drive hours that spelled f-u-c-k-i-n-g repeatedly: That station wasn't punished; his was.

Sikes, says Business Week, "lacks the free-market fervor of Reaganite regulators." Not surprising, since his boss, George Bush, prefers to deal with pragmatists instead of ideologues. Business Week also reports that Sikes wants to regulate commercial advertising during children's programs; Reagan vetoed similar controls in 1988.