In Chicago, Mancow Muller discusses naughty sexual practices with a sidekick, Turd.
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"?
Or do they agree with Powell's abrupt turnabout, after rock star Bono uttered an expletive in a non-sexual exclamation during last year's Golden Globes TV show?
"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.