This article was originally published in the Winter 2005 issue of Christian Networks Journal.
“The more I listened, the more irresponsible content I heard. I just felt this sense of purpose. I thought to myself, ‘Somebody ought to do something. Why not me?’” Doug Vanderlaan
“One (expletive) in Jacksonville is going to change the
complete landscape of radio forever.” Bubba the Love Sponge 1
complete landscape of radio forever.” Bubba the Love Sponge 1
Long before Bono’s prime time profanity and Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction, Doug Vanderlaan filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) about the indecency he was hearing on WPLA, Planet Radio, in Jacksonville. It was like David throwing a stone at Goliath. Vanderlaan isn’t a Congressman or a millionaire. He’s the father of two young men who were teens at the time. Clear Channel Communications, the owner of Planet Radio, is the biggest radio empire in the United States.
Although it took two and a half years, Vanderlaan’s tactics were devastatingly effective. In January, the FCC fined Clear Channel $755,000. Clear Channel soon instituted a corporate-wide zero tolerance policy regarding indecency, and that policy has resulted in the termination of violators. Bubba the Love Sponge is off the air, and Howard Stern has been on the ropes.
It all started in June 2001. Vanderlaan and his son, Mark, are musicians at their church. After practice one night, Vanderlaan allowed Mark, who had a learner’s permit, to drive home. Mark also picked the music, tuning in Planet Radio. The next day, when Doug got into his 1991 Corolla to go to work, he turned the radio on and heard Bubba for the first time.
Bubba’s guest was describing what viewers could see at her sexually explicit website. The web address was announced. Bubba told his audience that becoming pornographic webmasters would be a good idea for sixteen and seventeen year old boys to consider because it was a way to get a lot of sex.
“Bubba was encouraging adolescent boys to get involved with pornographic websites,” Vanderlaan says. It wasn’t the kind of thing he wanted his sons to hear. He began listening to Bubba regularly. He found out that the show he had heard was typical. Then he started writing to advertisers. “I would tape the show in the morning. Then I’d listen to it on the way to work,” he says. “I would write down the names of the advertisers. In the evening, I would take out my notebook and go through the names and find their websites, addresses, and contacts.”
Over the next several months, he wrote hundreds of letters informing Bubba’s sponsors that they were advertising on a show that was indecent and asking them to stop supporting the show. Many were not aware of the content of the program. Over a hundred advertisers pulled their ads. Bubba’s lawyer sent a letter to Vanderlaan demanding that he cease and desist.
In August of 2001, Vanderlaan received a curious phone call from a woman who identified herself only as a Clear Channel employee. She told him that running off sponsors didn’t matter to Clear Channel, because there were plenty of other advertisers to buy the ad time. Then she encouraged him to contact the FCC. That’s exactly what he did. “I filed my initial complaint in the fall of 2001, without the help of an attorney. The FCC responded that I hadn’t proven that the show had been indecent. I didn’t know exactly how to go about the filing,” he says.
Washington D.C. attorney Arthur V. Belendiuk, who specializes in issues related to the FCC, took an interest in Vanderlaan’s efforts. Belendiuk says, “Doug Vanderlaan was exercising his right to petition a government agency. It’s unfair for a corporation to try to beat up on a citizen the way Clear Channel did. There was significant pressure for him to stop, but he kept going. That took courage.”
Working pro bono, Belendiuk helped Vanderlaan craft complaints that the FCC could act upon. The first of those was submitted in April of 2002, the second in October of 2002, and the third in January of 2003. “Getting Bubba off the air was not the goal. That would have been too narrow. Our objective was to stop content that was harmful to children,” Vanderlaan says.
The first paragraph of the final complaint reads, “As was demonstrated in Mr. Vanderlaan’s previous pleadings, Clear Channel actively markets certain of its radio station formats to children. To this young impressionable audience, Clear Channel not only broadcasts indecent material, it promotes and glorifies the use of illegal drugs.” 2
In August of last year, Belendiuk arranged a meeting between Vanderlaan and two Clear Channel executives, Peter Ferrara, V.P. of Clear Channel’s Orlando Region, and Norman Feuer, General Manager of Planet Radio. Vanderlaan presented the following list of five types of content, with examples, that he thought were harmful to children:
Use of children’s cartoon characters in sexual or drug settings.
- Skit with Scooby-Doo performing oral sex to get crack.
- “Sodomy Street” sung to tune of Sesame Street.
Graphic broadcasts or descriptions of excretory processes.
- Prostitute urinating in can.
- DJs drinking urine and vomiting.
Promotion and glorification of drug use.
- Promotion of drug use websites.
- Favorable portrayal of routine drug use by DJs.
- Favorable portrayals of the use of rufinol for date-rape.
- Promotion of drug paraphernalia shops.
Graphic broadcast of sexual acts.
- Broadcast of sexual acts in the studio.
- Broadcast of callers’ sexual acts (e.g., females masturbating).
Promotion of porno web sites.
- Broadcasting and promoting porn website addresses.
- Encouraging teen listeners to get involved with porn web sites.
If Clear Channel had agreed to stop those five types of content, Vanderlaan was prepared to stop writing to advertisers and to back off his complaints to the FCC. “They could have gotten out of the spotlight,” he says. The Clear Channel executives made vague promises about changes, but would not commit to stopping the specific items Vanderlaan was asking for.
“My interest in affordable housing issues and decency on the radio merged.” Doug Vanderlaan
In the early 90s, Vanderlaan began to volunteer to build houses with Habitat for Humanity of Jacksonville. Before long, he was on the board of directors of what is now the largest Habitat affiliate in the US. “I was particularly active with training new homeowners, teaching classes on plumbing, electrical, and lawn care,” he says. Two years ago, Vanderlaan and his wife, Doris, moved into Jacksonville’s historic neighborhood of Springfield.
Several decades ago, Springfield was beautiful, with big Victorian houses on tree-lined streets. It was a thriving community on the outskirts of downtown. However, the growth stopped and Springfield deteriorated. Weeds overtook vacant lots while drug dealers and prostitutes took the streets. Shadowy hustlers roamed about after dark. Springfield became one of the most dangerous parts of the city. It happened gradually, as did the decay that has taken place in much of the media.
Urban pioneers, like the Vanderlaans, started moving in, fixing up the houses, and improving the neighborhood. Some of the houses are very nice now and more are being renovated. Many of the houses still look awful, like the one next door to the Vanderlaans’. Doug and Doris recently bought it, and they have begun to work on it. On the outside, it’s ugly. On the inside, it’s hideous. Still, Vanderlaan says it’s structurally sound enough to be rehabbed, which he estimates will take a year.
“Doris and I wanted to be part of the change that’s now happening in Springfield,” Vanderlaan says. They choose to live there because they believe that it can, once again, be a place where families can live in decent and affordable homes. They serve in the neighborhood as Block Captains, working to address issues like crime, streetlights, and garbage pickup.
Springfield isn’t yet a neighborhood where most people would feel safe walking at night. Hustlers peddle drugs in the streets. If you slow down in your car, a prostitute might try to flag you down. A recent segment of the television show Cops was filmed just four blocks from the Vanderlaans’ home. Still, Doug says things are better now than when he moved in.
Vanderlaan explains that he believes in the theological concept of reformation, for a neighborhood that appeared to be beyond repair, and for a culture that sometimes appears to be beyond redemption.
“Someday, when the story of my life is written, it will say ‘He was a radio activist.’ I didn’t plan for this. It sort of fell into my lap.” Doug Vanderlaan
Vanderlaan liked chemistry because he did well at it. He thought that, as a chemist, he could have an impact in the world in a way that was very consistent with his faith. When he was a young man, he envisioned himself doing medical research or helping to develop safer methods of pest control.
He has a good job with a Fortune 500 company, but his career hasn’t always worked out the way he thought it would. “After I earned my Ph.D., I was involved in developing a new plastic for bowling balls. It was a nice, interesting job,” Doug says. “However, developing a better bowling ball didn’t seem to connect with my personal values. I continue to struggle with the challenge of connecting my career with my beliefs and values.”
For a long time, Vanderlaan has felt that the welfare of children too often takes a back seat to business interests. For example, he says that a big part of Bubba’s target audience was adolescent boys. “One thing that made this a personal issue for me is that when it all started, I had two teenaged boys. I’ve also been involved in church youth programs for boys,” Vanderlaan says. “I know what’s good for them and I know what’s bad. That show was very bad. It is irresponsible to tell teenage boys where to find pornography. Parents, teachers, and broadcasters have a responsibility to protect kids from that.”
After he heard Bubba, he quickly decided to take action. He originally thought it might take as little as six months, but he was willing to put as much as five years into the effort. “I never had any second thoughts about it,” he says. “Looking at what Bubba was doing, I thought all the pieces were in place to put a stop to it. Parents, if they understood, would be furious. Politicians would respond. Advertisers would respond. I always felt optimistic.”
Through his involvement in affordable housing issues, and throughout his career, he had learned how to resolve legal issues and how to deal with bureaucracies. When Vanderlaan got involved in the radio business, he was confident that he could learn what he needed to learn about the system.
Dealing with the FCC and Shock Jock Economics
“The most discouraging thing for me was the slowness of the FCC.” Doug Vanderlaan
When working with patent lawyers in his career or on housing issues as a volunteer, it always took time to get things done, but at least Vanderlaan had some idea of how long it would take. Working with the FCC was different. After he filed his complaints, he had no indication of how long the process would take.
“After my first complaint, I waited three or four weeks. Then I called,” he says. “I found that the FCC is slow and secretive. After many phone calls, I managed to find the person on whose desk my complaint was sitting. Her attitude seemed to be that the FCC would get back with me when they were good and ready.”
Another challenge for Vanderlaan was understanding the economics of the radio business. The shock jock format is one of the most profitable formats in radio. Young men are a very desirable demographic to advertisers. Radio hosts who can attract young men as faithful listeners make a lot of money for themselves and for their stations.
“I knew we were having an impact on the advertisers,” Vanderlaan says. “However, I also knew I didn’t fully understand the economics of the business. The strength of my letter writing campaign was substantial, but I feared that the money that show was bringing in was far greater. I assumed that when advertisers understood what Bubba was doing, they wouldn’t want anything to do with him. But some just didn’t care. Their only concern was that their ads were reaching their target demographics. That was a difficult thing for me to accept.”
Faith and Politics
Vanderlaan is a Christian. He believes Christians are called to serve God, to be agents of change in this world, and to help people who need help. “Everybody has core beliefs and values,” he says. “Christianity is the source of mine. I believe Christians need to be engaged in the culture. Too many Christians have disengaged. I think that if children are listening to shows like Bubba the Love Sponge, parents should also be listening. When we see and hear things that are harmful to children, we should try to change those things.”
Vanderlaan believes that some media commentators have tried to marginalize the issue of decency by labeling it a conservative cause. For example, many have mistakenly assumed that he’s a right-wing conservative. In fact, he’s a Democrat, and he’s quick to point out that the staunchest defender of decency at the FCC is not Chairman Michael Powell. It’s Commissioner Michael Copps, a Democrat.
“Industry, collectively, is doing next to nothing to clean up its act. But if we at the Commission could just bring ourselves to send one of these more outrageous cases to a hearing for license revocation, Big Media would get the message real quick and they would begin to take us seriously, which they don’t right now.” Michael Copps 3
Vanderlaan says, “Issues of decency don’t break down neatly along conservative-liberal lines. This is about kids. Republicans love their children. Democrats also love their children. I’m looking forward to the day when both parties are competing for the high moral ground in regard to decency.” Similar sentiments are being expressed elsewhere.
“Vulgarity overload is creating a critical mass of alliances that target big media along with bad taste. It’s not a pure liberal-versus-conservative issue anymore – and therein lies hope.” Patrick Goldstein, L.A. Times 4
“I have never seen such broad consensus on an issue. People have just said, ‘Enough is enough. These are our airwaves.’” L. Brent Bozell III, President of the Parents Television Council 5
Turning it Off, The Slippery Slope, and Confused Shock Jocks
“They and others are expressing and imposing their opinions and rights to tell us all who and what we may listen to and watch and how we should think about our lives.” Howard Stern in reference to the FCC. 6
Howard Stern and other shock jocks say that people who don’t like their shows should simply turn them off. However, as a Wall Street Journal editorial stated, “That may make for an easy sound bite. But for parents it’s no answer at all. Unless you’re thinking of sending your child to a convent school at the edge of a Spanish desert, there’s no way to turn off the culture. And implicit in this flip advice is the arrogant assumption that people getting rich off this garbage have no responsibility for what they put out.” 7
Many people have objected to the actions of the FCC because they say it is a “slippery slope” that will lead toward restrictions on free speech for political purposes. Vanderlaan acknowledges that the government’s authority to mediate any media content is, like any other government authority, one that could be abused. However, when Howard Stern and Bubba claim they’re being targeted for their political expressions, Vanderlaan unapologetically calls them liars. “They’re hiding behind a smokescreen,” he says. “Prohibiting indecency during hours when children are likely to be listening is not political censorship. It’s common sense. The real motivator for the shock jocks is money. FCC rules generally allow raunchy content late at night, but night-time audiences are much smaller than morning drive-time audiences. Consequently, ad time is less valuable and the shock jocks can’t earn as much.”
Vanderlaan points out that the FCC has bent over backwards to give broadcasters every benefit of the doubt. Broadcast content has to be profoundly and repeatedly indecent for the FCC to take action. Still, the shock jocks complain that the line between decency and indecency has not been adequately defined. He says, “They can’t honestly say ‘We want to abide by FCC regulations, but we just don’t understand the rules.’ In fact, Bubba used to taunt the FCC. On his show, he joked that he was on the FCC’s ten most wanted list. Ninety-nine percent of the nation’s radio stations have not been fined by the FCC. The shock jocks would have people believe that they can’t figure out what the vast majority of radio broadcasters have figured out. It’s very disingenuous. The truth is that they are perfectly capable of reading and understanding the FCC’s rules.”
From the FCC Website
“It is a violation of federal law to broadcast obscene programming at any time. It is also a violation of federal law to broadcast indecent programming during certain hours. Congress has given the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) the responsibility for administratively enforcing the law that governs these types of broadcasts. The Commission may revoke a station license, impose a monetary forfeiture, withhold or place conditions on the renewal of a broadcast license, or issue a warning, for the broadcast of obscene or indecent material.”
“The FCC has defined broadcast indecency as ‘language or material that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community broadcast standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory organs or activities.’ Indecent programming contains patently offensive sexual or excretory references that do not rise to the level of obscenity. Indecent programming may, however, be restricted in order to avoid its broadcast during times of the day when there is a reasonable risk that children may be in the audience.”
“Consistent with a federal statute and federal court decisions interpreting the indecency statute, the Commission adopted a rule pursuant to which broadcasts -- both on television and radio -- that fit within the indecency definition and that are aired between 6:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m. are subject to indecency enforcement action.” 8
Fortune, Fame, and the Fixer Upper Next Door
The Vanderlaans have been harassed by phone and through e-mail. In the month following the FCC announcement of fines for Clear Channel, the Vanderlaans received over twenty disturbing phone calls or messages on their answering machine. The day Clear Channel fired Bubba, they received this threatening message: “Do you think you’re a big man now, getting somebody fired? Motherf---ing pussy! Don’t be surprised if the police catch you someday for having drugs in your car.”
People might assume Doug Vanderlaan is as angry and aggressive as the shock jocks. In fact, he’s soft-spoken. He’s also very determined when he sees or hears something he can change, whether it’s cracked sidewalks in his neighborhood or a shock jock spewing indecency. He’s deliberate and methodical, and he has the tenacity to follow through on what he initiates.
Vanderlaan has been quoted on CNN’s website and in many newspapers, from the Miami Herald to the Los Angeles Times. He has appeared on numerous television shows, including the O’Reilly Factor and FOX News’ Breaking Point. He has obtained a degree of celebrity that most of the contestants on Survivor and American Idol can only dream about. But, unlike any of them, he never sought fame or fortune. All he wanted to do was to make a positive difference in his culture.
Now that he has become somewhat famous, he certainly could exploit that for profit, the way many people would. But that doesn’t interest him. He’s willing to talk to the media, but only if it will help to advance the cause of protecting children. So, what does he want? He seems content to go on with his life as a scientist and to continue to fix up the house next door.
Doug Vanderlaan’s efforts against indecency have had a ripple effect that goes far beyond anything he imagined at the beginning. He’s delighted with that. However, he says, “This was harder than it should have been. The FCC should have done something about this long ago. The FCC has failed in its enforcement, until recently. There obviously has been a change of heart at the FCC. I’m happy to have played a part in that.”
- Marcus Franklin, Listener Has No Love for Bubba’s Message, St. Petersburg Times Online, February 1, 2004. (http://www.sptimes.com/2004/02/01/State/Listener_has_no_love_.shtml
- Art Belendiuk, Indecency Complaint to the FCC filed on behalf of Doug Vanderlaan, January 24, 2003, page 3.
- Michael Copps, Remarks at FCC Hearing on Localism and License Renewal in San Antonio,Texas, January 28, 2004 http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/DOC-243336A1.pdf
- Patrick Goldstein, The Decency Debate, Los Angeles Times, Mar 28, 2004., pg. E.1. http://pqasb.pqarchiver.com/latimes/591560271.html?did=591560271&FMT=ABS&FMTS=FT&date=Mar+28,+2004&author=Patrick+Goldstein&desc=THE+DECENCY+DEBATE%3b+The+zipping+point%3b+Vulgarity+overload+is+creating+a+critical+mass+of+alliances+that+target+big+media+along+with+bad+taste.+It%27s+not+a+pure+liberal-versus-conservative+issue+anymore+--+and+therein+lies+hope.
- Brent L. Bozell, Remarks posted on Parents Television Council Website on March 31, 2004, accessed April 28, 2004. http://www.parentstv.org/PTC/accomplishments/main.asp
- Howard Stern, Howard's Response To The FCC's Actions, posted on April 8, 2004 at his website, and accessed on April 28, 2004. http://www.howardstern.com
- Wall Street Journal Editorialist, Howard’s End, Wall Street Journal, April 23, 2004, page A14.
- Federal Communications Commission, Obscenity, Indecency, & Profanity, from the FCC Website , last reviewed 3-31-2004, accessed April 28, 2004. http://www.fcc.gov/parents/content.html