Guardian column: Howard Stern

Howard Stern: last defender of American freedoms

Jeff Jarvis
Monday November 7, 2005
The Guardian

Next month, the king of American media, ribald DJ Howard Stern, will make a switch to satellite radio. He is being paid $500m to lead the birth of this new medium, and though he is embracing his creative opportunity with a primal vengeance – he launched his channel with 24 hours of flatulence – make no mistake about it, Stern is being chased off broadcast radio by a small posse of prudes and their conspirators on the Federal Communications Commission. Together, they are hastening the collapse of mass media, kneecapping our First Amendment, and painting a new, fraudulent image of US popular culture: no sex, please, we’re American.

I became a fan of Stern’s when I discovered that he is more than the sum of his farts. He is a talented comic who fears no celebrity, who turns the lives and interactions of his co-workers into a comic soap opera sharper than The Office, and who actually says what he thinks. But that – and his popularity – has made him a tall target for religious busybodies. The so-called Parents Television Council created an automated online complaint factory that let their followers send hundreds, then thousands of identical computerised kvetches to the FCC about Stern’s penis, breast and gas gags, leading to $2.5m in fines.

Isn’t the First Amendment right to free speech sacrosanct in America? Yes. But not on broadcast, thanks to old media reasoning that the airwaves are public property and are uniquely pervasive in the home. Of course, the rise of new media makes these arguments obsolete (why should a show be treated differently just because it originates on broadcast, cable, satellite or online?) by making broadcast less pervasive (thanks to online competition). But the courts and Congress have not caught up and the religious right takes advantage of this to push its cultural agenda. The impact on freedom of speech is clear: a pressure group can enlist government regulators to limit what can and cannot be said. In other nations, that may be acceptable. But I say that is positively un-American.

The result is that broadcast media must turn into tapioca, making sure they offend no one. And that fits our larger cultural ethos: we live in an age when the greatest sin one can commit in politics, media or culture is to offend anyone. We see that from the left in the form of political correctness and from the right in the mobs fighting indecency. They all believe they are making broadcast safe. But they’re just making it dull.

So the intelligent and the adult – most of us – are fleeing big, old media for new media, where the law says we still can get what we want because we pay to get it. Free speech is no longer free. Thus Stern escapes to satellite and pay-per-view TV. The best dramatists migrate to pay-cable, which is what has made HBO great. And everybody’s getting a blog, where we can say whatever we please.

Truth be told, America is not a nation of prudes. Stern says he had an audience of up to 18 million, but only a tiny fraction complained – and not because they listened to him, but because they thought we should not. I filed a Freedom of Information Act request to see all the complaints that triggered the FCC’s largest fine in history: $1.2m for illegal whipped-cream use in Fox’s Married by America, a tacky reality show the market had already killed. The FCC said it acted on a measly 159 complaints, but they came from only 23 unique addresses and only two of them wrote their own letters; the rest just hit “send” on the PTC’s censor-o-matic.

So what is left behind? Well, look at the rubble swirling in the wake of the Stern tsunami: radio behemoth Clear Channel already cancelled him and has suffered ratings and revenue declines. Multimedia giant Viacom, which produced Stern’s show, is not just changing hosts but in most of his markets is changing stations’ entire formats. Desperate for business, which they concede will suffer as major advertisers hold back, they advertised in a trade publication this week that they would give us “courageousness mixed with slapstick, provocativeness minus the rudeness”. Even Benny Hill wouldn’t pass that test.

· Jeff Jarvis is a media consultant who blogs at