We must preserve radio as a medium for democracy.”

Sen. Russ Feingold, on January 30, 2003, before the Senate Commerce Committee Hearing on Media Concentration and Ownership in Radio

When Clear Channel yanked Howard Stern for violating its new ‘zero tolerance’ obscenity policy, the network cited as its reason a racial epithet made by one of Stern’s listeners. But, Clear Channel’s explanation is hogwash.

I agree with the many people who think that Stern is offensive to minorities and women. He’s degraded the quality of radio by trafficking in crude sexual references and unseemly racial remarks for as long as he’s been in broadcasting. But the issue here isn’t indecency; to paraphrase James Carville, it’s the First Amendment, stupid.

When Bill Clinton signed the 1996 Telecommunications Act, critics predicted that a new round of consolidation would sweep America’s radio industry. Clear Channel, on cue, grew from 40 stations in the 1990s to 1,225 stations in 2004. Currently, Clear Channel and Viacom control approximately 42 percent of America’s radio audience. Clear Channel has stifled diversity, opposed low-power FM, killed off localism in news, music and other forms of entertainment, and occupied the front lines of the conservative culture wars.

Clear Channel’s decision to fire Stern signals the latest target in its sights–the Bill of Rights. Its decision is based not on any pious, self-serving qualms about indecency on its stations but on its desire to curry favor with Bush and his Republican Congressional allies.

The implications are alarming. If Clear Channel can yank the commercially-successful Howard Stern, then it has the power to silence any DJ or radio kingpin who refuses to play the network’s chosen music, adhere to its appointed standards, or mouth Clear Channel’s political line.

Its decision to pull the plug on Stern coincides not with a sudden increase in Stern’s offensive behavior but with a rise in Stern’s anti-Bush rhetoric. According to Jeff Jarvis of the blog Buzzmachine, Stern “has become an anybody-but-Bush voter,” based, in part, on his concerns about the threat of censorship from the FCC. Stern also recently endorsed Al Franken’s book on the air.

Is it a coincidence that Stern came out against Bush shortly before his suspension? Or that Clear Channel president John Hogan was due to appear before a House subcommittee investigating indecency over the airwaves, on the heels of Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction”?

What is not under dispute, according to the Center for Public Integrity, is that Clear Channel vice-chairman Thomas Hicks and Hick’s law firm have given Bush more than $225,000–and Clear Channel’s PAC, executives, and their relatives have given three-quarters of their political donations to the Republican Party.

So, they couldn’t have been too happy to hear Stern’s recent on-air rant about the president: “Get him out of office. I’m tellin’ you, man, he’s in dangerous territory [with] a religious agenda and you gotta vote him out–anyone but Bush,” Stern railed.

Clear Channel’s founder, Lowry Mays, also has close ties to Bush. He was put on the governing board of the University of Texas Instrument Management Company by Bush when he was still governor of Texas. (Hicks won an appointment, too.)

“When these insider dealings were exposed by the Houston Chronicle in 1999,” Micah Sifry wrote in his blog about Stern and Clear Channel, “Hicks resigned from the company’s board. By then, he had made Bush a rich man when he bought the Texas Rangers from him and his partners in 1998 for $250 million, three times their investment in the team.”

Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin is sponsoring a bill, the Competition in Radio and Concert Industries Act, that will prevent Clear Channel from leveraging cross-ownership in an anti-competitive manner, and once again make the radio dial safe for speech. Now more than ever, this bill needs to pass, because Clear Channel, with a big assist from the GOP, is trampling on the First Amendment. (Click here for info on how you can contact your elected reps in support of S 221.)