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Posted October 1, 2005

The Latest Study on Radio Indecency

A new study on radio indecency notes the "striking" fact that 96 percent of the fines levied by the Federal Communications Commission for indecency were against the United States' four largest radio chains.

The 96 percent figure, the study added, was twice as big as the combined audience, 48 percent, of all the radio stations owned by those chains.

"In contrast, all the other radio stations in the nation were responsible for just four of the total of 101 FCC indecency violations," said the study, titled "Ownership Concentration and Indecency in Broadcasting: Is There a Link?"

"They were responsible for just 4 percent of all FCC radio indecency violations, a fraction of their national audience share" of 51.4 percent, and an even smaller fraction of the 88 percent of the U.S. radio stations they own, said the study, jointly issued in September by the Center for Creative Voices in Media, Jesuit-run Fordham University in New York and Free Press, a journalism advocacy organization.

The study, though, said this did not prove a causal link between indecency and concentrated ownership. "The increasingly centralized ownership of broadcast radio stations and programming may contribute to the problem of increased indecency on the airwaves," it said.

"This study provides compelling theoretical, anecdotal and quantitative evidence suggesting that this potential relationship should receive much greater scrutiny from researchers and policymakers," it said.

Clear Channel Communications is the nation's largest radio station owner; it has 1,233 stations -- up from 40 before the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was passed and loosened restrictions on radio station ownership.

The company ultimately signed a consent decree with the FCC to clear multiple indecency charges against it from the FCC's docket. Clear Channel fired one host whose program was heard on several of its stations and whose indecent comments resulted in fines against each station. Clear Channel also pulled shock jock Howard Stern's syndicated radio show from the stations it owned.

The study said consent decrees between the FCC and Clear Channel and radio chains Emmis and Viacom could create a "chilling effect" in that they could "significantly increase the likelihood of self-censorship of speech that is not indecent, obscene or profane -- and therefore protected by the First Amendment." The study added, "Some broadcasters have halted live news reporting from the field for fear that an offending swear word or image in the background might result in an FCC indecency complaint."

One tool the FCC has to curb indecency is to regulate media ownership to provide for "competition, diversity of viewpoints and localism," the study said. Such an approach, it added, "might include breaking up large station groups, reintroducing meaningful station ownership limits, and limiting vertical integration of ownership of programming and distribution."

At a February talk-radio convention, U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said, "If a company has 1,200 stations, and many of those stations carry the same programming, that is going to exaggerate the problem."

U.S. Rep. Diane Watson, D-Calif., in a September 2004 essay, warned against "a concentrated media market controlled by profit-driven conglomerates producing indecent, shock-value programming for the sake of viewership."

Research suggests that radio broadcasters' prime demographic targets, the 18-to-34- and 18-to-49-year-old age groups, "may exhibit strong preferences for programming that pushes the envelope," the study said.

"Stations that are part of large groups may be more willing to incur the financial risks associated with providing potentially indecent programming," it added. "An indecency fine may mean a lot less from a financial standpoint to stations that are part of large station groups than to other stations, increasing the likelihood that such stations will broadcast potentially indecent programming."

The study was limited to radio indecency because there were only three TV indecency complaints lodged with the FCC during the course of the study.