In New York, Howard Stern asks a stripper to unveil her new implants so that he can describe them to his listeners.
In Chicago, Mancow Muller discusses naughty sexual practices with a sidekick, Turd.
And in Los Angeles, Tom Leykis urges female listeners to flash motorists on the freeway, while he muses on his favorite types of "boobage."
Scandalous attacks on America's high moral character? Not really.
Punishable offenses that could generate millions of dollars in federal fines? Quite possibly.
The almost-anything-goes world of shock-jock radio has turned upside down since Janet Jackson's infamous "wardrobe malfunction" during the Super Bowl halftime show, her armor-plated nipple-shield apparently rattling the foundations of the American radio industry.
Since that fleeting glimpse of Jackson's mostly obscured anatomy, the Federal Communications Commission has issued more than $1.5 million in fines to broadcast companies airing Stern, Muller and Bubba the Love Sponge (a.k.a. Tom Clem), among others, for broadcasts that occurred long before Jackson's internationally televised, split-second striptease.
Moreover, with the U.S. House of Representatives recently passing a bill allowing fines of $500,000 for each instance of radio "indecency," with the White House voicing support and the U.S. Senate considering even more draconian measures, the climate for provocative speech on America's radio airwaves has changed dramatically and swiftly.
Yet for all the federal muscle-flexing and media hub-bub, the broadcasts themselves hardly have changed at all. Last week, Stern waxed poetic about public defecation in Las Vegas; a Muller sidekick riffed briefly on NBA star Kobe Bryant's rape charge; and, somehow, the world stayed on its axis.
Observers on both sides of the free-speech debate -- libertarians who believe the marketplace should decide what's broadcast and moralists who want to decree what everyone else gets to hear -- agree that the recent controversies hardly have made a dent on what we hear on the radio (unless you happen to live in one of the six, midsize markets from which Stern was dropped by Clear Channel Communications).
Both sides, however, fear what's coming.
"If the FCC succeeds in silencing Howard Stern, it could be radio's death knell," says Bruce DuMont, founder and president of the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago and host of "Beyond the Beltway," a nationally syndicated political talk show that airs at 6 p.m. Sundays on WLS-AM 890.
Counters Bill Johnson, president of the Michigan-based American Decency Organization, "The radio industry is circling its wagons, the momentum for change is slowing down.
"Our culture is headed downward."
The real issue at play here, however, is not whether American culture is blossoming or dying on the vine but, rather, whether the federal government should impose steep fines to try to influence inevitable shifts in public taste.
Do Americans, in other words, concur with FCC Chairman Michael Powell, who said in 2001, "I don't know that I want the government as my nanny"?
"A clear line has been crossed, and the government has no choice but to act," Powell said in March, as the FCC decreed the Bono incident "indecent and profane," though without issuing a fine.
Powell's flip-flop unintentionally but eloquently expressed the quick change of environment that has taken place in our broadcast culture. After roughly two decades of minimal FCC action on radio indecency, the agency in the past several months seems to have gone on steroids, levying individual fines as high as $755,000 against San Antonio-based Clear Channel Communications for radio skits in which Bubba the Love Sponge mocked Scooby-Doo, George Jetson and Alvin the Chipmunk in absurdly sexual terms.
Clear Channel subsequently fired both Bubba and Stern, the latter after the company received a $495,000 FCC fine for earlier Stern broadcasts, including a discussion of a certain sex act that was accompanied by the pre-recorded sounds of flatulence.
"I'm embarrassed to be here," said Clear Channel CEO John Hogan, during a grandiose apologia before a congressional subcommittee in February.
"I've read the transcripts of the Bubba radio show. As a broadcaster, as the CEO and as the father of a 9-year-old girl, I'm ashamed to be associated in any way with those words. . . .
"I hope that the subcommittee will understand that the Bubbas of the world and the Howard Sterns of the world are the exception rather than the rule, and that they will no longer have a platform on our stations."
Hogan did not disclose, however, why his moral outrage was so late in coming, after Clear Channel had been airing Stern for years. Nor did he mention Britney Spears' recent concert tour -- promoted by Clear Channel -- during which silhouetted dancers mimed graphic sex acts.
So why exactly did sophomoric broadcasts by Stern, Bubba and their colleagues -- clearly intended to jolt listeners the way a teenager mooning passersby from a speeding car might do -- suddenly become a federal case?
Beyond the obvious trigger of l'affaire Jackson, which only intensified an FCC fining binge that had begun a few months earlier, an argument can be made that some public resentment has been building as American broadcast media exploded during the late 1970s, '80s and '90s.
The rapid proliferation of FM stations -- with the FCC creating spots on the dial for hundreds of new outlets in the 1980s -- arguably ushered in the age of the "shock jock." Typically a twentysomething white male who tried to stand out from the pack, early practitioners such Steve Dahl in Chicago and Stern in various markets offered lusty discussions of sex, race, toilet habits, musical tastes and anything else that might attract and provoke an audience.
As early as July 1979, Dahl incited his listeners on WLUP-FM 97.9 (he's now on WCKG-FM 105.9) to join him in a "Disco Demolition Night" at Comiskey Park. Dahl then presided over the ceremonial explosion of a crate of disco records, the event then erupting into a mini-urban riot. The playing field was mauled, 37 people were arrested and the upcoming Sox game canceled, but Dahl emerged a national media star.
Before Stern hit the big time in New York, in the 1980s, he was refining his belching, farting, adolescent-based humor at radio stations from Detroit to Washington, D.C. His antics got him fired, hired, fined and, eventually, propelled him to the status of ringmaster of a syndicated, Manhattan-based show now heard on 35 stations nationwide and rebroadcast -- in part -- on the E! Entertainment Television network.
Though most Stern imitators have quickly and mercifully died in the ratings, a few who have followed in his wake -- such as Muller and Leykis -- similarly have built national audiences offering gleefully rude, crude, lewd programs aimed at the free-spending, young-adult male audience that advertisers covet.
But even before Jackson's semi-naked dance, conservative activists were trying to drum up support to get Stern and colleagues booted off the air, to little avail.
They found a receptive ear, however, in the Bush administration's FCC.
Earlier, "The FCC hadn't been doing its job, in my opinion," says David Edward Smith, who has been relentless in filing FCC complaints against Muller, prompting Muller to file a harassment suit against him in March.
"And now they're finally starting to do their job."
Open to debate
Whether it really is the FCC's task -- and, by extension, the government's -- to ride herd on radio expression is open to debate.
For starters, there's the problem of simply defining indecency. The FCC describes it as "language or material that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory organs or activities." Such "indecent" expression is allowed only between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., when children supposedly aren't listening to the radio.
Apart from that shaky premise, however, there's a more fundamental problem: Not everyone takes offense at the same material, and "community standards" can be virtually impossible to define in sprawling metropolitan areas such as Chicago or Los Angeles, where a thousand different cultures merge.
Even if it were possible to define, to everyone's satisfaction, the meaning of indecency, constitutional scholars argue that the FCC has a limited legal basis for controlling speech.
"We have a very expansive constitutional protection of free speech, and even on the airwaves, the FCC's power is sharply limited," says Cass R. Sunstein, the Karl N. Llewellyn Distinguished Service Professor Jurisprudence at the University of Chicago and a noted expert on Amendment issues.
"Basically, what's going on here involves speech that is constitutionally protected. Not all of it, but there's a lot of room to say offensive things on the airwaves."
But no one, including the commissioners of the FCC, has concretely spelled out exactly which words, phrases and verbal images are indecent, outside of the "seven dirty words" broadcast by comedian George Carlin but subsequently banned from the airwaves by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1978.
With the FCC retroactively deeming some broadcasts indecent, then levying staggering fines against select infractions, broadcasters literally have no idea when they're crossing a line into forbidden territory, and when they're not.
"Basically, the FCC is saying: `We're not going to tell you what's dirty, but if it is dirty, we're going to bash your skull in,'" says Muller, whose show on WKQX-FM (101.1) has drawn $42,000 in FCC fines.
"We're easy targets. Label somebody a `shock jock,' and who's going to stick up for them? Call it porn, and who's going to stick up for it?
"You'll notice the FCC is not attacking hip-hop stations where practically every song is X rated."
Vow to quit
The selective enforcement of vaguely defined rules helps explain why Stern has vowed to quit his show if the aforementioned House legislation becomes law. He has mused aloud about taking his bevy of strippers, porn stars and flatulence performers to the fledgling satellite radio industry, which, like cable TV, is heard only by subscribers and, so far, at least, operates outside FCC content control.
But does America really want Stern and his ilk to flee the airwaves, leaving a government-controlled radio industry that caters exclusively to particular tastes?
"People keep saying, `Stop forcing your morality on us,'" says Smith, the Mancow basher who recently was hired as senior policy analyst at the Glen Ellyn-based Illinois Family Institute.
"I say, `Stop forcing your immorality on us.'"
In truth, however, no one is forcing Smith or likeminded listeners to tune in to Mancow, Stern or the other juvenile, potty-mouthed jocks.
"This is all about those who want to impose taste upon others," says Rick Morris, associate dean at Northwestern University's School of Communications. "It's a battleground of ideologues, and if the government can regulate one form of media, why can't they go on to regulate another?"
Indeed, FCC Chairman Powell has discussed the possibility of applying indecency standards to cable and satellite television, which could be the next frontier in government regulation of broadcasts.
To those who have been around for a while, it's all a sad reminder of past culture wars.
"It's really part of the same phenomenon I experienced" in the late 1980s and '90s, says John Frohnmeyer, who was chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts during the great cultural clashes over NEA grants for controversial work by artists Karen Finley, Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe.
"But for free speech to really work in any society, you have to have the courage to hear views that are contrary to your own."
What effect the public debate on indecency is having on listenership is impossible to gauge, and not only because Arbitron -- the ratings service -- does not break down statistics for "shock jocks." But considering that Stern's numbers for the winter recently shot up in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago while Muller dropped from seventh to 17th here, individual audiences clearly are reacting differently.
Ultimately, it's probably too soon to know whether we're going through a brief cultural blip or entering a potentially dark period of curtailment of expression.
"One hopes that this is a fleeting moment," says Gretchen Soderlund, an assistant professor in the University of Chicago's department of sociology.
The morality crusaders, however, despair that they're getting nowhere fast.
"I think it's very much an uphill battle," says Johnson of the American Decency Association.
"Are the airwaves any cleaner? I'd say it's still early to know, but, up to this point, I don't think so."