Karmazin Lays Down the Law

Still stinging from its Super Bowl fiasco and the angry government scrutiny it triggered, Viacom is getting serious about getting decent. And the message has migrated from TV to radio.

The media giant’s Infinity Broadcasting unit didn’t mince words in a message to its 186 radio stations last week: Clean up the airwaves, or we may clear you out. The edict came from the top—Viacom COO Mel Karmazin—a week after he was grilled by legislators on Capitol Hill.

In a conference call on Wednesday, Karmazin, Infinity CEO John Sykes and Infinity COO Joel Hollander told programmers and managers that Infinity was adopting a “zero tolerance” policy. All stations with live call-ins now must have technology with 7-second “dump” buttons to zap offending material.

The Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act, which would increase fines tenfold, is on the fast track in the House and is scheduled to pass the full Commerce Committee in early March. “The overriding rule is: ‘When in doubt, leave it out,’ ” said a follow-up Infinity memo. “Failure to abide by this policy is grounds for harsh discipline, including immediate termination.”

Other station groups, including NextMedia Group, are holding conversations with managers. Meanwhile, the FCC continues to levy fines. Last week, it upheld a $21,000 fine against Mancow Mueller, morning man on WKQX-FM in Chicago, for three broadcasts in 2001, and added $7,000 for a fourth that year.