NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
Opie and Anthony return to radio Monday, but good luck finding them on the public airwaves.
To hear the bawdy duo, diehard fans must subscribe to satellite radio.
XM Satellite Radio, a subscription-based broadcaster, signed up Gregg "Opie" Hughes and Anthony Cumia this summer, two years after they were dumped by Viacom unit Infinity Broadcasting over a stunt in which they broadcast descriptions of listeners having sex in public places, including St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York.
With XM Satellite, Opie and Anthony found not only a new job, but also a haven from government watchdogs. They might have plenty of company soon.
Eight months since Janet Jackson's breast-baring incident during the live Super Bowl broadcast, the backlash against television shows and radio programming deemed smutty and offensive is gaining momentum.
And shock jocks in particular are feeling the heat. "The radio industry has sent out directives to all of the talent, putting them on notice that if they do anything that could be interpreted as obscene, they're fired," said Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers, a monthly magazine covering the radio talk show industry. "There's zero tolerance."
Turning up the heat
For evidence, look no further than Howard Stern, who regularly laments on his morning show that the scrutiny will force him off the air. Stern's employer, Infinity Broadcasting, is already facing fines for a 2003 show that discussed anal sex in detail.
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Clear Channel Communications, which carried the "Howard Stern Show" on six stations, agreed in June to pay a record $1.75 million fine for the same broadcast. Earlier, the country's No. 1 radio operator fired Stern.
Now comes word that members of Congress are pushing ahead with a proposed bill that would increase fines nearly 20-fold, to $500,000, for each violation of decency laws, and would permit federal regulators to fine performers, according to a report Friday in Communications Daily, a trade publication covering the telecommunications sector.
The bill would also permit the Federal Communications Commission to factor in a broadcaster's indecency violations when considering whether to renew its licenses. Under a "three strikes" provision, FCC regulators would be required to initiate proceedings to revoke a license if a broadcaster committed three violations in eight years.
Under current law, regulators don't have that kind of authority. And fines are limited to $27,500 for each violation.
Just last month, for instance, the FCC socked the 20 Viacom-owned CBS stations that aired Jackson's performance with a $550,000 fine -- the maximum allowed. Under the proposal to cap fines at $500,000 per violation, the total bill could have gone as high as $10 million.
Not surprisingly, free speech advocates and broadcasters are nervous.
Can Howard survive?
If passed, the bill will "ruin commercial radio," said Harrison of Talkers. "Radio is the medium of the street. If you can't talk the language of the people and of the day, then you're no longer effective. You might still be able to exist. But you can't evolve on a competitive level."
To be sure, there aren't that many shock jocks to begin with. But Harrison said popular radio personalities in Detroit, Los Angeles, Chicago and Tampa have been fined or forced to modify their acts in recent months.
One example is "Bubba the Love Sponge," a Florida radio personality who, like Stern, was fired earlier this year by Clear Channel. Bubba, a.k.a. Todd Clem, had broadcast out of Tampa since 1996.
On the show's Web site, www.btls.com, Clem makes it clear that he sees satellite radio as his only hope for a revival.
Unlike public radio broadcasters, XM Satellite and Sirius Satellite Radio sell subscription-based, advertising-free services that are largely unregulated. That means the content on satellite radio is not restricted.
Yet, Tom Taylor, the editor of Inside Radio, a daily industry newsletter, said satellite services are treading carefully. There have been calls over time for government oversight of cable and satellite operators and, in this climate especially, Taylor said it might just happen.
"They don't want to wave red flags and become targets," said Taylor.
For that reason, Taylor predicted that more radio hosts will move to satellite radio in coming months, but it won't be an exodus.
What about Howard Stern, the one shock jock everyone is watching?
Rumors have been flying that the current climate would force Stern out at Infinity and into satellite radio's open arms. Stern, whose contract with Infinity runs out at the end of 2005, has long hinted that he might just make such a move.
But Harrison, for one, thinks Stern's job at Infinity is safe. He said the shock jock king, who analysts estimate brings in as much as $25 million in profits for Infinity each year, always manages to play anti-smut campaigns to his advantage. This time, said Harrison, he's done it by blaming election-year politics and efforts by the Bush administration to appeal to conservative voters.
"It's been good for him," said Harrison. "His ratings are up."