Howard Stern Show Breaches Broadcaster’s Codes

Ottawa, November 11, 1997 -- For the first time in the history of the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC), two Regional Councils have come together to issue a joint decision, which is annexed hereto. Today, the Quebec and Ontario Regional Councils are releasing their decision concerning the Howard Stern Show broadcast by CHOM-FM in Montreal and CILQ-FM in Toronto.

Both radio stations began broadcasting the New York-originating Howard Stern Show in September 1997. Complaints immediately began flooding in to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) and the CBSC, all of which have come to the CBSC for adjudication. Although the incoming complaints related to the Stern Shows from September 2 to 25 and that of September 29th, numerous October episodes and November episodes as recent as the 7th, the two Regional Councils limited their evaluation to those complaints generated by the first two weeks of the program (September 2-5 and 8-12). In all, more than 1,070 persons have registered their objections to the show by e-mail, fax and letter.

Members of the two Regional Councils reviewed the correspondence, listened to tapes or read transcripts relating to the shows in question. The Quebec and Ontario Regional Councils have decided that the Howard Stern Show has breached both the Canadian Association of Broadcasters (CAB) Code of Ethics and the CAB Sex-Role Portrayal Code.

The Councils began by pointing out that the issue of the nationality of the host was not a matter for the CBSC’s consideration since it fell within the mandate of the CRTC and that the CBSC’s issues were limited to substantive matters which are a part of the various broadcaster codes. They also stated that, although many of the complaints raised the question of bad taste, in their view, “matters of taste must be left to be regulated by the marketplace. Such choices remain those of the listener. This is the time when the on/off switch is the listener’s coping mechanism.” There were, however, several important Code-related issues raised by Stern’s commentary during the course of the two weeks of episodes considered.

The Regional Councils concluded that Stern’s comments on the very first show, directed at French-Canadians, including the terms “peckerheads”, “pussy-assed jack-offs”, “scumbags”, and “pussies” were abusively discriminatory under clause 2 of the Code of Ethics. The broadcasters and Howard Stern himself advanced the defence that his comments should be understood as humour and should not to be taken seriously. The CBSC has dealt with this issue on previous occasions and concluded, in any event, that the language surpassed the permissible, even if it could be seen in a humorous sense, which premise they did not in any case accept. They said: “Even had his comments been understood as comedic by some elements of his audience, they would be excessive by Canadian standards.”

The Councils noted that other identifiable groups were frequently targeted during the programs, including Japanese, Sikhs, Arabs, Poles, blacks, and gays in the shows reviewed, in such a way that the Councils also found breaches of clause 2 of the Code of Ethics there. Moreover, the Regional Councils expressed the view that the evidence of the two weeks of shows reviewed was that “such comments ... will be ongoing, day after day, episode after episode.”

The Councils also reviewed the continually present sexist comments, often presented with violent overtones. In one show, for example, Stern had stated, with reference to actress Kim Basinger, that he would like to have her “lay by my pool in a bikini” where he would “yank out her vocal chords...[and]...break her legs”. Although not always as violently expressed, every Stern show “revealed sexist comments which fall afoul of one or more” of the Codes. The Councils concluded that:

Stern consistently uses degrading and irrelevant commentary in dealing either with [women] guests or callers. The CBSC understands, by his demeanour and laughter, that he and, presumably, Quivers and others on his show find such comments amusing. It may well be the case that many in his audience find such comments entertaining. This sort of adolescent humour may work for some in private venues but it is thoroughly in breach of Canadian codified broadcast standards. Women in this country are entitled to the respect which their intellectual, emotional, personal and artistic qualities merit. No more than men. No less than men. But every bit as much as men.

The ongoing sexist language was found to be in violation of clause 15 of the CAB Code of Ethics as well as numerous provisions of the CAB Sex-Role Portrayal Code.

Finally, the Councils considered that the airing of the program from 6 to 10 a.m. each week-day rendered “unsuitable language and the graphic discussion of sexual situations” readily accessible to children on a daily basis.

It is a small irony that the host of the Howard Stern Show states that, in his own view, his “show is not appropriate for a 11-year old. I’m a parent and, as a responsible parent, I wouldn’t let my kid listen to the show.” In any event, it is the Canadian broadcast standards which apply to this program and the stations which broadcast it and, in the view of the Quebec and Ontario Regional Councils, descriptive opinion and comment such as that cited above regarding the sex life of Stern and his wife, details of which were broadcast during hours when children could be expected to be listening to radio is certainly not proper material for Canadian children.

In addition, therefore, to the other concerns expressed by the CBSC, it is its view that the time period in which the Howard Stern Show plays is entirely inappropriate and that the unsuitable language and graphic discussion of sexual situations which the CBSC found in the two weeks of episodes it reviewed will be repeated on a daily basis in future episodes, thus rendering the broadcasters carrying it in constant ongoing violation of clause 6(3) of the Code of Ethics.

The Councils also considered it useful to examine how Canadian laws and standards differed from those of the United States and to recall that “all Canadian broadcast licencees know perfectly well that there are public rules in Canada to which broadcasters must adhere as well as others to which private broadcasters have chosen to adhere. In this latter category fall the Canadian Association of Broadcasters Codes, of which there is no equivalent in the United States.” In any event, as the decision pointed out, the FCC in 1995 approved a $1,715,000 (Cdn$2,400,000) settlement agreement with Infinity Broadcasting Corporation resolving several pending indecency enforcement proceedings against the Howard Stern Show, which “represents the largest amount ever contributed to the U.S. Treasury by a broadcast station licensee.” More recently, the FCC has issued further Notices of Apparent Liability on October 15, 1996 and April 8, 1997 against Virginia and Louisiana radio stations with respect to subsequent episodes of the Howard Stern Show.

Ron Cohen, CBSC National Chair, noted that “Canadian private broadcasters have set high standards for themselves and their audiences which equal or exceed those of any other Western democracy. The Council’s job is to administer these on their behalf. This decision underscores the fact that Canadian standards may differ from those in the United States in the case of shock radio as they differed in the case of television violence, where Canada’s private broadcasters took the lead in finding a solution for Canadian families as well.” As the Regional Councils stated:

The existence of other standards in other parts of the global village cannot weaken the need to apply home-grown standards within the Canadian bailiwick. The bar should not be lowered in Canada just because it is set at a lesser height elsewhere in the village. There is no need for the chain of vigilance here to be as weak as its weakest links elsewhere.

Each of the stations is required to announce this decision forthwith during prime time in terms provided in the text of the decision.

The CBSC’s Regional Councils are composed equally of broadcasters and representatives of the general public. The Quebec Regional Council Chair, a public member, is Pierre Audet. The Vice-Chair, representing broadcasters, is Yvon Chouinard. Other public members involved in the decision are Marc Gervais and Dr. Peta Tancred; the other broadcaster who participated in the decision was Suzanne Gouin.

The Ontario Regional Council Chair is Al MacKay, a broadcaster representative. The Vice-Chair, a public member, is Robert Stanbury. Other public members participating in the decision were Meg Hogarth and Ron Cohen, in place of absent public member Taanta Gupta; while Paul Fockler and Madeline Ziniak represented the broadcasters.

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All CBSC decisions, Codes and related documentation are available on the World Wide Web at For more information, please contact the National Chair of the CBSC, Ron Cohen, at (###) ###-####.