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Music as Media 7: Free Speech

Music as Media 7: Free Speech

Author: Amee Wittbrodt
  • Understand, analyze, evaluate, and use different types of print, digital, and multimodal media.
  • Critically analyze information found in electronic, print, and mass media and use a variety of these sources.
  • Explain the FCC's responsibility surrounding freedom of speech and the radio.
  • Evaluate whether or not Howard Stern has been successful on the radio and what his success says about out society.

This packet is 7th in a series about music as media.

It presents information about Howard Stern's radio career and the responsiblity of the FCC surrounding freedom of speech and the radio. Discussion questions are provided at the end to facilitate student responses.

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Background Information

Howard Stern is famous for being the original “shock jock.” Stern began as a traditional disc jockey, playing records and talking a little between songs. He soon found, however, that listeners liked what he talked about. Stern also realized that the ruder and cruder his discussions became with various guests, the higher his ratings were.

Today, over 40 radio stations throughout the United States broadcast Stern’s program. Stern has clearly tapped into something that many people are not comfortable admitting: Many listeners like to hear talk about sex and bodily functions. Stern also discovered that many people enjoy listening to him make fun of people, even those who have physical or mental disabilities.

Freedom of Speech- Although the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects freedom of speech, the courts have said that certain types of indecent or obscene speech are not protected. Some people say that Howard Stern has undertaken a risky approach. Since he tries to talk about things that people find shocking, he must constantly search for new subjects and guests to shock his audience. At the same time, Stern must avoid violating FCC regulations that prohibit indecent or obscene speech.

A taboo is something that is commonly prohibited by social custom. For example, it is considered taboo to ask a stranger how much money he or she makes. Howard Stern violates many taboos. Some people find this humorous, but other people are made uncomfortable. Why do you think that some people are attracted to somebody who violates taboos?

The FCC has fined Stern’s employers, Infinity Broadcasting Corporation, more that $1.7 million over the years. Some people say that this is merely a cost of doing business. They point out that even though Infinity has had to pay fines for Stern’s allegedly indecent programs, the advertising sold during the show more that makes up for it. In fact, it has been reported that Infinity (which is owned by Viacom) makes so much money from Stern’s show that it pays him over $20 million a year.

(From On October 6, 2004, Stern announced on his show that he had signed a five year contract with Sirius, a satellite radio service. Sirius provided a budget of $500 million to pay Howard, his staff and general production costs.His personal salary has not been revealed. Other media sources have claimed that Stern netted a $225 million one-time stock bonus for meeting subscriber quotas, which he did meet in January 2006.

Stern stated that he was growing increasingly unhappy doing his show on terrestrial radio. The combined stresses of heavy censorship and editing by management as well as lengthy commercial breaks weighed into his decision to start anew on Sirius. The Sirius deal, which took effect on January 1, 2006, enabled Stern to broadcast his show without the content restrictions imposed by the FCC. Moreover, the deal also enabled Stern to program an additional Sirius channel.

On February 28, 2006, CBS Radio announced it had filed a lawsuit against Stern, his agent Don Buchwald, and Sirius Satellite Radio, saying Stern used CBS's airwaves to unfairly promote the satellite service and enrich himself. The lawsuit also claims that Stern "repeatedly and willfully" breached his contract with CBS, "misappropriated millions of dollars worth of ... airtime" for his own benefit, and "fraudulently concealed" his performance-related interests in Sirius stock. The suit, filed in New York state court, sought compensatory and punitive damages. Not to be outdone, Stern earlier in the day (prior to CBS's announcement) held a press conference at which he mentioned that CBS added to the media attention, booking him for appearances on Late Show with David Letterman and its news magazine show 60 Minutes. "I made them millions of dollars. If I was hurting them, why did they keep me on the air for 14 months?" Stern said. "How can you have it both ways?”

A settlement was reached on May 25, with Sirius paying $2 million to CBS for control of Stern's broadcast archives since 1985.Stern's contract with Sirius XM will expire at midnight on December 31, 2010.

Howard Stern On Demand-
In January 2006, Howard TV was launched as an on-demand television service, to coincide with the beginning of his 5-year contract with Sirius Satellite Radio. It covers the daily happenings of Stern's radio show, as well as providing original programming and footage from the E! show. In 2008, it was decided that Howard TV would continue to at least January 2011 (the end of Stern's current radio contract).

Source: From

Want to Learn More?

The Bill of Rights: Freedom of Speech
Jacob G. Hornberger, November 1, 2004

FCC and Freedom of Speech

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you believe that there should be laws limiting what people can and cannot say on the radio? Why or why not?
  2. Despite the popularity of Howard Stern, there are advertisers who do not want to advertise during his show. Explain why you think this is the case.
  3. Has Howard Stern been successful in his career? Explain.
  4. What does Howard Stern's popularity say about about culture? Explain.
  5. If you don't like his program, what can you do? Explain.
  6. What is the FCC's responsilility surrounding freedom of speech and the radio? Explain.