Stern Measures

How the FCC's assault on indecency is polluting our airwaves


The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) can relax. They've already killed Howard Stern.

Oh, the king of the shock jocks is still on the air three hours and more every weekday, with Robin Quivers agreeing with him, Fred Norris triggering funny-by-repetition absurd sound clips, and new jerk on the block Artie Lang throwing in his not-funny-by-repetition normal-slob jibes. Stern's still trying to hook up everyday losers with strippers and porn stars and giving freaks an opportunity to shine before millions.

But what he's doing way too much of—during at least three out of the four 20- to 40-minute blocks I've caught of him in the past two months—is complaining about the fact that the FCC is out to get him, and it's a right-wing Christian conservative conspiracy, and Clear Channel is selling him out for political advantage, and it's all because he's spoken out against George Bush. (That, by the way, is something that I'd never heard him do before the past two months, as a loyal listener in get-ready-for-and-drive-to-work time. Stern's poorly thought out politics always seemed a rather hardhat-pragmatist sort of hit-'em-back hawk with a record of support for Republican politicians and a brief flirtation with running for governor of New York as a Libertarian.) Uptight geeky boss Tom Chiusano is now seeming like blessed comic relief in this new droning, increasingly predictable political atmosphere contaminating Stern's show.

Some would argue that Stern has never been funny, or that he stopped being funny when Jackie Martling left, or when he got divorced. A lot of the entertainment value of Stern's show comes in the soap opera of following the characters and their relationships; but that frosting won't start seeming tasty until you are hooked on the cake of the show's central comedic sometimes-brilliance, which is built on the unexpected and the inappropriate.

The key to what made Stern great were things like the prank phone calls (done by fans, not Stern himself) and the Stuttering John (now departed for Jay Leno, of all shows) interview assaults on pompous-for-no-reason celebrities.

Those involve the shock of the unexpected—John stammering out questions like "did you learn to walk backwards to avoid your father's punches?" to Michael Jackson, and "who are you?" to Spalding Grey and "didn't you steal my car?" to Montel Williams. Or Maury from Brooklyn calling in imitating a Amos n' Andy style shucker and jiver live on ABC News, pretending to be a neighbor of O.J. Simpson and describing breathlessly how "tenses" the situation was at the Brentwood home after the Bronco chase. They are outrageous, and funny, because they break, and violently so, our expectations for their cultural settings—the snoozy predictability of the celeb press conference or the staid boredom of the evening news

Nowadays, in addition to more of the already-boring horndogging after porn stars, you'll hear Stern echoing (with no comedic twists) Michael Moore-style material about Bush family ties to Bin Laden and endless rants about rampant neo-Puritanism.

Yesterday some of the big companies targeted by the FCC lately finally stood up, petitioning the FCC over its recent fineless declaration that Saint Bono of U2 had indeed done something wrong by uttering a forbidden gerund in its adjectival usage. (The pre-Janet's-breast FCC was willing to let Bono walk away on this one, but post-tit has declared that it was wrong of him to have said it, though it imposed no consequences for it.)

Stern's parent company Viacom (through its ownership of Infinity Broadcasting) was joined by Fox on one petition—NBC filed its own, and ABC showed the kind of boldness that has sent them straight to number four by not getting involved since the FCC hasn't cited them for anything yet. NBC chairman Robert C. Wright chimed in with some painfully obvious but nonetheless true bromides in the Wall Street Journal—"Ultimately we have less to fear from obscene, indecent or profane content than we do from an overzealous government willing to limit First Amendment protections and censor creative free expression," he wrote. Damn the FCC for making it necessary for anyone to write tired crap like that ever again and get it published in a major paper! But that same sort of mentality—tedious repetition of trite, even if often true, bromides—while acceptable and perhaps even predictable and necessary for the Wall Street Journal op-ed page, is death to anything interesting about Stern. This recent wave of FCC action is clearly a last gasp of a dying mentality regarding public indecency, and of a dying legal structure that thinks it necessary to use force and threats to preserve the chastity of "broadcast over the public airwaves." That ridiculous First Amendment loophole will not, I expect, mean anything legally or technologically pretty soon. (Indeed, some argue that this recent FCC spasming will doubtless lead to constitutional challenges from well-heeled media interests that may end this whole stupid game of the FCC's.) God bless the wired world, and I look forward with hope and anticipation to the day when "public airwaves" is as meaningful a concept as "luminiferous ether."

Still, right now, the busybodies pushing this idiocy never rest. Stern is hoping to expose the whole new crackdown on indecency as an unfair blast at him by encouraging fines and investigations of Oprah for broadcasting graphic discussions of oral and anal sex on her show; and the monkey-faced jackass behind the initial Stern complaint is now launching a complaint against 60 Minutes for allowing pop singer Mary J. Blige to utter the word "shit" over our precious public resource, the airwaves.

Meanwhile, elsewhere on the radio dial, Air America is day by day consuming any reservoir of good will we might have felt for some talented entertainers who used to make us laugh (Al Franken, Janeane Garofalo) or thrill us with powerful and ground-breaking music (Chuck D.) by reducing them to nattering dullards going on about new source review (a subject so complicated, distant, and dull that even policy magazines avoid it), gas prices, and how Condoleeza Rice will become a stripper after she leaves the Bush administration. (Really. Chuck D., Wednesday morning.) And it was positively painful hearing Al "The Al Franken Decade" Franken making us cringe Wednesday morning with an ill-conceived and ill-executed politically motivated "Accountants without Borders" skit that even at everyone's most coke-addled would have gotten you tossed out a window at 30 Rock in the old days of Saturday Night Live.

Government always disrupts the ecosphere of civil society and the business of human beings peacefully meeting other human beings' needs in unnecessary and stupid ways, from the marketing of pain relievers to attempts to protect us from mad cow disease. Its most dire effect on popular entertainment don't come so much from the unconscionable fines, but from the shifting of the effort of entertainers and artists toward dealing with the government's officious interference—whether it be cowtowing to it or fighting it. All these petty, stupid acts of government comprise a monster that eats all our lives and pleasures, small piece by small piece.

Nowadays when I hear Stern going on and on about censorship aimed at him for his political views, it makes me sadly nostalgic for what I remember as perhaps the funniest moment in Stern history. He had Marilyn Manson on, who was complaining about the then current moves in many smaller cities—some successful—to cancel planned concerts by him because of his "edgy, shocking" stage show. Stern adopted his "serious" voice—one of his greatest comedic weapons—and went into a perfect mail-order little riff on how (paraphrased from memory) "this is a shocking blow to your First Amendment rights and free expression and all the things that make this country great." And then about fifteen words in, without shifting his tone or disrupting his rhythm, he replaced the words with a repeated "blah blah blah blah blah blah" slipped in so perfectly that not even Robin or Jackie laughed. It went completely unnoticed by everyone in the studio.

But I was laughing. Hard. As the pressure of the FCC's recent idiocy weighs on Stern, I'm still hearing that "blah blah blah blah blah." But I'm not laughing anymore, and I doubt many other people are.