In an impromptu on-air exchange between Federal Communications Commission chairman Michael Powell and Howard Stern, the shock jock told Powell he wasn't fit to hold the post and said indecency was a racket to make broadcasters pay to stay on the air.
For his part, Powell appeared to remain relatively unruffled as he parried the attacks, though bristling at the suggestion he was underqualified.
Powell received the unexpected call during an Oct. 26 in-studio interview on San Francisco area talk radio station KGO(AM). Stern called in to Ronn Owen’s mid-morning show program shortly after 9:30 a.m. Pacific time.
“The Commissioner has fined me millions of dollars for things I have said and consistently avoids me and avoids answering my questions,” Stern said, by way of an introduction. “I’m wondering how long he’ll stay on the phone with me.”
Powell was not scheduled to talk to callers, but he and host Ronn Owens had taken several calls before Stern called in. Powell and the shock jock conversed for just over 10 minutes. According to a station spokesman, Stern was informed of Powell’s appearance by a listener.
Earlier this year, Clear Channel paid $1.75 million to settle indecency complaints, including against Stern, and pulled the shock jock from its air claiming a zero tolerance indecency policy which it attributed to pressure from Washington.
Stern also criticized Powell’s appointment to the commission during the call.
“It’s apparent to most of us in broadcasting that your father got you your job,” Stern said, referring to Secretary of State Colin Powell. “You’re the judge, you’re the arbiter, you’re the one who tells us what we can and can’t say on the air, but I don’t think that you’re qualified to be the head of the commission.”
Powell responded that he was more than qualified, listing numerous items from his resume. He added: “I have the same credentials that virtually anyone who sits in my position does.”
Powell's resume includes clerking for the chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals, serving as chief of staff of the antitrust division of the Justice Department and serving on the commission since November 1997, when he was named a commissioner.
Stern shot back: “You continually fine me, but you’re afraid to go to court with me.” A moment later, Stern called indecency fines a racket, saying: "[you make] stations pay up or you hold back their license renewal.”
Powell called the accusation flatly false.“I think you have a right to be concerned about the way that indecency fines are done,” Powell said. “But rather than attack me personally, you can challenge the regime. The entire commission has voted on those fines. The commission has statues it’s required to enforce. And I think it’s a cheap shot to say just because my father’s famous I don’t belong in my position.”
Later, Stern referred to an episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show which referred to anal sex: “Why didn’t you fine Oprah Winfrey then?”
Powell pointed out that the Oprah case is still pending at the commission: “If we don’t [issue a fine], then you can ask that question. But until we resolve it, I don’t think it’s fair to ask that question … We only fined stations that are owned-and-operated by Viacom.”
He added later: “It’s not about the O&O, it’s about the parent company. Basically that’s how we calculate the fine, but the parent company is responsible.”
After Owens repeatedly implored Stern to let him move on with his show, Stern finished by saying that the indecency safe harbor, which holds that broadcast indecency is only permissible between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. is "a complete double standard when it comes to me and morning radio--it’s probably the only time of day when parents listen with their children.”
Powell remained diplomatic after Stern finally hung up: “I think Howard has an argument, but his argument is that there should be no limit,” he said.
Recorded segments from the interview may air on Stern’s Oct. 27, according to a KGO spokesman.