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Howard Stern defeats the FCC with free market innovation

By Kyle Sing
web posted October 25, 2004

Howard Stern has made history and in the process has begun the liberation of American free speech on radio from the statist controls of the FCC. Now that Stern has signed a deal with Sirius satellite radio and is set to leave broadcast radio in 2006, the ramifications for the medium and free speech are nothing less than Herculean in scope. Through his decision, Stern has legitimized satellite radio as a serious alternative to broadcast, much in the way cable television has usurped much of broadcast television's glory.

Howard SternStern, who had recently considered leaving radio entirely due to the FCC's puritanical hunt for him through massive fines, has shown his FCC nemeses with his coming switch to Sirius, that their attempts to control the content on his show will be trumped by the technological innovations that come from a free market in the form of satellite broadcasting. Being such a huge radio personality who is synonymous with a no-limits approach to topics such as politics, sex, and religion, to make the move to such a fledgling medium, Stern has concretized its potential as being what broadcast radio should have been, uncensored and open to free speech, no matter how unpopular or risqué.

For almost a century the federal government has held total control of content in the medium of radio precisely because the government has held, and continues to hold, control of the licenses for bands on broadcast radio. All this began to change in the 90s with the birth of satellite radio due to a demand on the part of consumers for commercial-free radio that catered to their specific musical or news/talk tastes. Now that one of the titans of 'old radio' has joined the new medium, thereby legitimizing it; we can only expect other maverick talent to follow in search of the freedom to work their craft in an environment conducive to whatever their creativity can muster.

Moreover, in addition to an eventual influx of big talent to satellite radio now that Stern has led the charge, with eventually more people will listening to satellite radio it will lead to more talent being discovered and exploding in popularity within the satellite radio medium itself, perhaps eventually leaving broadcast and its archaic regulation in the dust, just as FOX News and the blogosphere have done to the old establishment news media.

Even beyond Stern's particular case in moving to satellite, what is particularly important to understand about satellite radio (and perhaps now with Stern bringing more attention to it, may now come to light), is that the view many have had toward radio being a static quantity will eventually be erased. For years radio was a static quantity due to limited bandwidth and government regulation due to federal possession of licenses. With the advent and now Stern-assured rise of satellite radio, such concepts are nigh. Satellite increases not just the freedom of the particular deejay, but dramatically, and possibly exponentially, increases the market and consumer choices.

For those of us who have worked either academically, professionally, or in a personally extracurricular manner in media research, the now inevitable growth of satellite radio is a sweet vindication over government regulation of radio precisely because for as many years as broadcast radio has existed, the very fuel of statist regulation enforced upon radio was the revenue produced by the private talent that occupied its airwaves. The profits produced by the on-air talent, which could only be produced by the private talent and capitalist advertisers, was and is taxed to fund a government entity that stringently regulates the speech content. The FCC could not enforce their own regulations on the deejay's free speech and talent if it were not for the individual deejay's creativity to pull in listeners and advertisers, yet the very talent that brings in such profit is punished by state established "standards of decency".

Essentially, while the private deejays and advertisers can make a profit on broadcast radio, they can only do so under a strict code of regulation that is anything but free while the product of their talent (i.e. profits) are used against them through taxes to maintain their strict and oftentimes punitive regulation. Satellite radio throws off those shackles of regulation and offers the private deejays and advertisers almost limitless freedom to be as creative as they want, regardless of whether that creativity is crude or intellectually highbrow.

It may very well be the case that such growth in the satellite radio market would have occurred anyway without Stern making the jump, but what cannot be denied is now that Stern has chosen to move to satellite, the course of radio history, the potential for radio to be a truly free medium, and the rate of growth of satellite radio's market has all been hastened immensely because Howard Stern made the choice not to be a victim of statist censorship, fully understanding both his own power as a radio titan, and that technological innovation is the handmaiden to freedom and his individual right to speak and broadcast as he sees fit.

Kyle Sing is a graduate student in media studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In addition to his graduate work he is a blogger and columnist for The Chicago Report, a right-of-center, libertarian blog covering politics and culture in Chicago and nationally.

Other related stories: (open in a new window)

  • Abolish the FCC by Robert Garmong (July 26, 2004)
    In the rush to grant the FCC greater control over broadcasters, no one has noticed that the FCC's very existence is a violation of free speech, argues Robert Garmong
  • America: A nation of prudes? by W. James Antle III (May 10, 2004)
    Anyone who believes that prudes are determining what can air on America's radios and televisions must also believe they are big fans of sex, violence and profanity. America isn't prudish, argues W. James Antle III
  • Culture fight could endanger freedoms by Paul Weyrich (March 22, 2004)
    Paul Weyrich warns conservatives that the fight to remove objectionable material from America's airwaves, as honourable as it may be, may one day boomerang against them
  • Censorship is not solution for trashy TV by Wendy McElroy (February 23, 2004)
    Regardless of what you think of Janet Jackson's "performance" during the Super Bowl, writes Wendy McElroy, don't use it as an excuse to attack freedom of speech
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