The house next door looks like it should be leveled. What was once a simple bungalow, framed by a narrow front porch, is now rotting under years of neglect. One step inside and your foot sinks into what remains of the wood floor.
Inside the house, the smell tells you someone hasn't bothered to use the bathroom for a long time. A dead bird is splayed across the shallow fireplace. On the floor are stacked multiple layers of textured gold shag rug from the '70s.
The small house has five tiny rooms with a low ceiling and no apparent charm, which belies its designated historic status. But for $35,000, Doug and Doris Vanderlaan have made this house their project, and together they share a vision of rehabbing it into a proud member of the "still in transition" downtown Jacksonville neighborhood of Springfield.
Transition is the operative word. On this day, a strung-out prostitute walks by. Drug deals go on all the time in the neighborhood. The Vanderlaans know dealers by their first names.
This is not the first seemingly impossible renovation for the Vanderlaans. They also own the three-story Queen Anne Victorian next door, which is freshly painted a light sky blue. A couple of years ago, the Vanderlaans took it down to the frame before building it back up again.
Doug's office is on the second floor of the Victorian. Judging from the dozens of audio tapes on his desk, this would be the official "Bring Down Bubba the Love Sponge" headquarters. Vanderlaan's campaign to derail the shock jock began in 2001 after his grown son, Marc, left the radio tuned to WPLA- FM (93.3), a Clear Channel station in Jacksonville that plays progressive rock in the evenings. When Vanderlaan got into his silver '91 Toyota the next morning, he was introduced to Bubba.
"He was encouraging 16- and 17-year-olds to go to a porno website and check it out," says Vanderlaan. "Bubba encouraged listeners to become a porno site webmaster so Ã?you can get a lot of ass.' They gave the websites and addresses and I cringed."
And there was more, he adds. "Bubba then asked [a] woman if she could come to Tampa on a regular basis to have sex with him, and praised the concept of making money by having sex. It makes our job [as parents] really difficult."
Vanderlaan's flat-A accent pegs him as a Midwesterner. Bubba is from the Midwest too. Todd Clem, now officially "Bubba the Love Sponge" Clem, is from Warsaw, Ind., son of a school-bus driver and a factory worker. With his large presence, leather jackets, bleached spiky hair and explicit discussion of every orifice, Bubba bragged on his website that he's finally found his calling.
And his ratings bore him out. In Tampa, at Bubba's flagship station, WXTB-FM (97.9), where he had been on the air since December 1996, the station claimed Bubba and his Army as No. 1 in all demographics for his 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. show. WXTB is one of the 99 stations in Florida, and 1,200 radio stations nationwide, owned by mega-operator Clear Channel Communications of San Antonio, Texas, the nation's largest radio chain.
Jacksonville was the first market to pick up Bubba's show via syndication in January 2001, followed by stations in West Palm Beach and Fort Myers the same year. Orlando's WJRR-FM (101.1), one of seven stations in the city owned and operated by Clear Channel, began airing Bubba's show in June 2003.
Bubba's brand of shock talk had him making impressive ratings gains, until he was fired Feb. 23 after the Federal Communications Commission levied an unprecedented $755,000 fine against Clear Channel for 25 separate incidents of indecency on the Bubba the Love Sponge show. It is the largest FCC fine ever to come from a single complaint.
The complaint was filed April 3, 2002, by Doug and Doris Vanderlaan.
A transcript of "The 12 boobs of Christmas," a Bubba skit from December 2001, during which female guests were competing for breast implants:
Male Host: How, how often do you masturbate?
Female: Usually ...
MH: Be honest.
Second Male: She looks like a masturbator.
F: Usually once a day. Yeah, I'm a masturbator.
SM: Oh man.
MH: Now, now do you do it with a vibrator? Or do you use just your fingers?
F: Just my hands.
MH: My boys are, my whole deal down there is shaved. I got the cleanest presentation in town.
F: That's good. That's good. No, no hairs in the teeth and stuff.
SM: (Moaning) Right, right.
MH: So why are you, why are you, why are you, are you good at oral? Are you a big oral queen?
F: Yeah, I'm a big oral queen. I used to have my tongue pierced. And then I took that out but, yeah. I like giving. I don't really enjoy getting though.
Vanderlaan doesn't consider himself a member of the religious right, though he does go to church. He is not funded by a conservative organization. He doesn't believe in media censorship of the Iraq war, for example. He's not even a Republican. (Ironically, it's Bubba who brags he is a Republican.)
Instead, Vanderlaan says he was doing it for the children. His campaign was rooted in his shock and dismay at what he called Bubba's lewd, indecent and offensive radio program. Particularly offensive, he says, were Bubba's use of cartoon characters' voices to endorse smoking crack; inviting his audience to join the "bong brigade" at "4:20," referring to the afternoon time when parents aren't home; degradation of women and glorification of date rape. All this and more, Vanderlaan says, was intended to titillate, shock and encourage dangerous and immoral behavior in children.
"I have been asked 'why [me]' a number of times, and I must admit that I am always a little surprised by the question," he says. "When you have been a parent for a while it becomes second nature to watch for things that may hurt your kids, and to protect your kids from them."
While his own boys, ages 18 and 21, are not in danger of being influenced by the content of a Bubba show, Vanderlaan says to look the other way is inconsistent with his personal faith and values. "The unfortunate fact is that I know from years of interacting with kids, particularly 13 years of working with a church boys' club, that many parents are not watching out for dangerous influences that can harm their kids. Too many are complacent, detached, too busy or literally not there for their kids."
With help from Washington, D.C., attorney Arthur Belendiuk, who worked in the tariff division of the FCC in the early '80s, Vanderlaan put together a complaint, complete with the transcripts and tapes. Belendiuk agreed to work pro bono because he agreed with the cause.
"Bubba is not expressing, he's pandering," he says. "When he's talking about a child having sex with Dad, he's crossing the line. The real question is what is it we want to portray as a society? Bubba can go on cable, the Internet and I can keep a 6-year-old off. I can't control the radio, it's a public space and it belongs to me! I shouldn't be driven out of it."
Of course, not everyone sees it the same way.
"I think in a policy sense, the minors are being used as a sword, not a shield," says Joan Bertin of the National Coalition Against Censorship. "It's the excuse behind which the culture nags are hiding."
Complaining about media is a free speech right she encourages, but what concerns her and other First Amendment proponents is the FCC's increasingly invasive role in legal entertainment. Then there is the sticky question: Who defines what is and isn't "indecent"?
"Even the FCC is confused," says Bertin.
As evidence of this confusion, she cites Sarah Jones' song "Your Revolution," which criticizes misogynist rap lyrics. The song earned a radio station that played it an "apparent notice of liability" from the FCC (which was later rescinded). Eminem's Grammy-winning song "The Real Slim Shady" was similarly labeled indecent by the FCC and later cleared. Even Bono's use of the word "fuck," blurted out in an excited moment during the 2003 Golden Globe awards, was initially cleared of indecency by the FCC, which recently reversed that ruling.
While First Amendment organizations are asking the FCC to examine the constitutional issues raised by indecency rules, everyone from Bubba to Belendiuk agrees on one thing: The indecency debate is big this election year.
Cease and desist
In June, 2001, during their morning walks, Doug and Doris Vanderlaan would tape the 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. Bubba show, accumulating hundreds of hours of tapes. After an earful about Bubba's anatomy and sex with a dog, they called the Jacksonville station manager and asked to have the show taken off the air. They were told, "The show makes a lot of money," and that Bubba wasn't going anywhere.
Their taping turned into an exercise in compiling lists of Bubba's advertisers. In two years, working four hours a week, they'd identified 400 to 500 regular advertisers. Each one received a letter. Cingular, Boston Market, Daytona International Speedway, Florida Lottery, JCPenney, Sears, Krispy Kreme, Winn-Dixie and Miami Subs were among the names that got missives from the Vanderlaans. Doug estimates about a quarter of them pulled advertising after getting a single letter asking them if they knew their ads appeared on a morning program with "explicit sexual content."
"I found out quickly that folks making decisions had no idea what the content of the show was," says Vanderlaan.
Not everyone was pleased to hear from the Vanderlaans. "That's what's wrong with Jacksonville," Vanderlaan recalls being told by the Ponte Vedra Water Sports manager. "If we're ever going to be more like New York, we need more of this."
The letter-writing campaign had hit a nerve. Clear Channel hit back.
Vanderlaan, who holds a Ph.D in chemistry, works for Johnson & Johnson as a senior scientist in its vision products division. After the initial flurry of letters, a Clear Channel sales manager called his employer complaining that not only was Vanderlaan contacting advertisers, but that he was representing himself as being from Johnson & Johnson. Vanderlaan denied the charge, but nonetheless received a warning letter in his personnel file.
Then came a letter from Clem's attorney warning that Vanderlaan had interfered with a business relationship between Bubba and his employer and advertisers. He asked that they cease and desist writing. "Anyone who tortuously interferes with those relationships will be dealt with to the full extent of the law," the warning said.
The Vanderlaans' letter-writing campaign continued for another year.
The First Amendment is not absolute. You cannot yell "Fire!" in a crowded theater, nor can you make threats on the president's life. It does not allow "fighting words" that provoke violence or a riot. And obscene speech -- defined as lecherous, lewd and lacking in serious artistic value -- is not protected.
But indecent programming is protected, thanks in part to George Carlin's monologue "Filthy Words," which occasioned the landmark 1978 broadcast indecency case. Defined as language that is "patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory activities or organs,'' the FCC expressed the opinion that it should be regulated like a nuisance, where the "law generally speaks to channeling behavior, rather than actually prohibiting it."
As a compromise, the FCC adopted Safe Harbor, a period (10 p.m. to 6 a.m.) during which broadcasters are safe to air racy programming.
When a broadcaster is found to be in violation, the FCC "may revoke a station license, impose a monetary forfeiture, or issue a warning, for the broadcast of obscene or indecent material," according to the FCC website.
No station has had its license yanked for on-air indecency or obscenity since 1962.
Race to the bottom
In life, timing is everything. And Vanderlaan couldn't have predicted or orchestrated a better time to bring a complaint before the FCC. The FCC has awakened from its deep slumber, leveling more fines so far this year than in the previous 10 years. Congress has fast-tracked fines for broadcast indecency, with more crackdowns promised. Broadcasters are on their knees before Congress, offering a "zero policy" for on-air obscenity, despite having encouraged it for a decade to bolster ratings; and FCC Chairman Michael "Deregulation" Powell is calling to investigate the very companies he's had a hands-off policy toward since taking office in 2001.
Forty years ago Ed Sullivan worried about swiveling hips. Today viewers are treated to Nelly adjusting his crotch, erectile problems in Viagra commercials and simulated sex acts that are available for children to see any time of the day.
What's fueling this "race to the bottom," as FCC Commissioner Michael Copps calls it, are marketplace concerns. Broadcast is trying to compete with cable. Tony Soprano's liberal use of the word "fuck" and the explicit offerings of "Sex and the City" and its ilk have more people watching cable -- which is not regulated like the public airwaves -- in a 24-hour period than broadcast, according to Nielsen Media Research.
As broadcasters sex it up to compete for audience share, they're taking more heat to stop obscenity.
Consider the 346 complaints to the FCC about on-air indecency in 2001. So far in 2004, a record 530,000 citizen complaints about on-air indecency have fueled the fervor of Congress.
"We got thousands of e-mails across the country," says Sean Bonyun, spokesman for Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., referring to the impetus behind January's introduction of the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of 2004, which was on the fast track before Janet Jackson busted her bustier.
On March 11th, the measure passed the House by a vote of 391-22 with bipartisan support. It increases fines for broadcast indecency to a maximum of $500,000 per violation; with syndication that could run into the millions. Also, performers can be fined up to $500,000. The Senate is expected to vote soon on its version of the bill.
But critics say Congress and the FCC is responsible for at least part of the real indecency -- a lack of accountability made possible by huge media corporations allowed to grow even larger under relaxed ownership rules approved last summer by the FCC.
Last summer Powell took the heat for relaxing media ownership rules that now allow broadcasters to own more stations in a single market. The seeds were sown for the dissent seen today. A record 750,000 irate citizens from groups as diverse as Common Cause and the National Rifle Association joined in a chorus against further media consolidation and its narrowing accountability to the public.
"The issue of consolidation and the issue of indecency are inextricably related," according to Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., who co-sponsored the Broadcast Decency Act of 2004, the big stick bringing broadcasters to their knees.
The Broadcast Decency Act of 2004 goes to the heart of media consolidation. It would put a hold on the media ownership rule changes that allow media conglomerates to gobble up more stations, and would require the federal General Accounting Office to conduct a year-long study to examine the link between media consolidation and the increasing indecency complaints.
Copps promises that revoking broadcast licenses is not far behind. Referring to the Super Bowl, he says, "One incident seldom sparks a revolution, and the seeds of this particular revolution have been building -- and have been painfully obvious -- for a long, long time."
On April 8th, the FCC levied its latest fine on Clear Channel. This time it was against the Howard Stern show. The complaint was filed by Coral Gables attorney Jack Thompson, a conservative/evangelist who in 1989 got a Broward County judge to declare 2 Live Crew's "As Nasty as They Wanna Be" obscene. (The decision was later reversed on appeal.)
Thompson's complaint against Stern garnered the second largest fine ever, $495,000, for a sexually explicit discussion of oral sex by sidekick Stuttering John Melendez, in April 2003. As part of its new stepped-up enforcement, the FCC fined Clear Channel for multiple violations within the same show instead of one violation per program, as had been the norm.
Acknowledging defeat, Clear Channel Radio president John Hogan admitted, "The Congress and the FCC are even beginning to look at revoking station licenses. That's a risk we're just not willing to take."
In February, Stern was suspended from all six of the Clear Channel stations on which he appeared. His show still appears on 35 stations nationwide.
A chilling effect? Yes, says Bertin, who worries about the fallout on small and independent broadcasters. "Given a choice between censoring themselves and financial ruin, many may be forced to choose censorship. Lost will be programming that may be provocative and challenging but which falls short of indecency."
Don't feel too sorry for Stuttering John; he's just landed a gig as the announcer on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno." Fired shock jock Bubba, who reportedly had just signed a new contract, is in discussions with Clear Channel. His Tampa attorney won't say whether he is exploring a wrongful-termination suit or a settlement. Bubba's website is back, hawking Bubba DVDs and encouraging supporters to write to satellite radio stations XM and Sirius requesting them to give Bubba a show. But as for broadcast, he's gone.
Vanderlaan is low-key, but pleased with his success. He says he may not be done with Bubba. "The satellite radio folks should know that I intend to continue this campaign if they broadcast Bubba in a way that will make such harmful content available to kids' ears again."
Vanderlaan's been asked to provide advice to a group in Detroit on how they can impact so-called "irresponsible media" in their area. In the meantime, he's planning to take his son to an upcoming Prince concert in Jacksonville.