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Listener has no love for Bubba's message

One man's campaign to take the shock from the notorious Tampa-based shock jock exacted a personal toll.

By MARCUS FRANKLIN, Times Staff Writer
Published February 1, 2004

JACKSONVILLE - Not long after he first heard the Bubba the Love Sponge radio show in June 2001, Doug Vanderlaan revamped his daily routine.

Every weekday morning, Vanderlaan popped a cassette tape into his home office stereo to record the shock jock's program. After a jog and breakfast, Vanderlaan, tape in hand, climbed into his 1991 silver paint-chipped Toyota Corolla and headed for work.

For more than a year, the 46-year-old scientist listened to portions of the tapes during his half-hour commute. He couldn't bear to listen to the banter about reproductive organs, discussions on masturbation, or skits in which cartoon characters talked about sex and drugs.

So he fast-forwarded to the advertisers and jotted down names like Krispy Kreme, Sears and Burger King. In the evenings, he wrote letters and e-mails to the companies, urging them to pull their ads from a show that aired "offensive and pornographic content." He continued writing letters until only a few months ago.

"It was just something we worked into everyday life," he said. He accumulated at least 200 hours of tapes.

Vanderlaan's crusade eventually led to a Federal Communications Commission complaint, which culminated Tuesday when the FCC slapped media giant Clear Channel Communications with $755,000 in proposed fines. The fines stemmed from 26 apparent violations, mostly for airing indecent material in 2001. Clear Channel, which owns more than 1,225 radio stations, broadcasts Bubba the Love Sponge on stations in four Florida cities. It originates in Tampa, on WXTB-FM 97.9.

"I know children listen to that program," said Vanderlaan, who has two sons with his wife of 27 years, Doris. "One obligation parents have is to protect their children from biting dogs, speeding cars and from people that want to draw them into pornography and drugs. It's very difficult for parents to do their job when that kind of stuff is coming on the radio. Children have headphones and radios in their bedrooms, and they should be able to."

But the campaign Vanderlaan has been waging since June 2001 has not been without costs. Vanderlaan, who holds a doctorate in chemistry from Florida State University and is a senior scientist at a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary that makes contact lenses, said it has "opened up so many cans of worms."

"It's been an experience," said Doris Vanderlaan, 46, a stay-at-home mom.

Since Vanderlaan started, the Bubba show and some of his fans have broad-brushed his family's Christian beliefs as "right-wing fundamentalist" and called him a Nazi. He has been threatened with a lawsuit to discourage him from writing advertisers. At one point, his employer gave him a written warning for making calls to advertisers from work.

And after the FCC's ruling, as many as 20 strangers called his home in one day, taunting him and his family.

* * *

The man behind the largest single fine ever proposed by the FCC for indecency lives with his family in a refurbished three-story Queen Anne Victorian home on the outskirts of downtown Jacksonville.

In Vanderlaan's second-floor home office, cassette tapes of Bubba the Love Sponge still line the desk. One drawer holds hundreds of written responses from companies. Vanderlaan estimates 25 percent of those he wrote pulled ads.

So how did Vanderlaan, a Methodist who, with his youngest son Marc, 18, plays guitar and bass for the church choir, start listening to Bubba the Love Sponge? It began with an evening spin in the Corolla. Marc, 15 at the time, had just gotten his learner's permit.

"I remember him saying, "If I drive, I set the radio,"' the older Vanderlaan recalled.

Marc turned to WPLA-FM, which plays alternative rock. The next morning, when Vanderlaan left for work, the radio was still set to WPLA. The Bubba show was under way.

"The first time I heard them I said, "I'm going to stop this. I'm not sure how I'm going to do it but I'm going to figure it out."'

Vanderlaan started by complaining to the station manager, but he got nowhere. So he started writing advertisers. After studying FCC regulations on the Internet, he filed a complaint in the fall of 2001. The FCC wrote back, saying the complaint, which Vanderlaan said was "poorly prepared," lacked proof.

Through a writer for Salon.com, Vanderlaan said he met Arthur V. Belendiuk, a Washington communications lawyer. Belendiuk helped him prepare a second complaint - including transcribing compilations of offensive portions of the tapes - for free, Vanderlaan said. That complaint, which included content from Clear Channel programming in addition to Bubba's show, was filed in April 2002, he said.

"Adults can listen to a program ... and make an adult decision whether we want to listen to it or not," Vanderlaan said last week after he wrapped up a TV interview at his home. "Children don't have the maturity to make that decision wisely. They have a special psychological vulnerability to be harmed by things like this."

But some wish Vanderlaan simply would have changed the station and kept quiet. During Wednesday's show, host Bubba the Love Sponge Clem called the FCC action a "political witch hunt" and Vanderlaan the "gentleman" who caused "this pain on me" and who brought "erroneous charges."

"One (expletive) in Jacksonville is going to change the complete landscape of radio ... forever," Clem said.

"One right-wing extremist conservative Christian Pat Buchanan Nazi can determine what people ... listen to," Brent Hatley, one of the show's producers, said during the program. He later described his comments as "hyperbole."

Vanderlaan, who described himself as politically moderate and a registered Democrat, said he stands by what he did.

"People can make of that what they want," he said of his religious faith. "Everybody has their core beliefs and values, and (Christianity) is the source of mine. This issue doesn't break down neatly along conservative-liberal lines. It's about kids. Republicans love children and Democrats love children."

As for the warning from his employer, which came about after Clear Channel contacted the company, Vanderlaan said he never represented himself on behalf of Vistakon, the Johnson & Johnson subsidiary he works for, in his efforts against Clear Channel, nor does he now.

A spokesman for the San Antonio, Texas-based Clear Channel declined to comment on Vanderlaan's efforts.

Vanderlaan said he went after Clear Channel to protect children. His oldest son Andy, 21, is a senior at the University of Florida and Marc, who called Bubba "a waste of space and air time," is a high school senior who also plays in a rock band.

Vanderlaan said the complaint was consistent with the work he's done for years with children's clubs and youth programs at the family's church.

He said he was disappointed the FCC didn't revoke some of Clear Channel's licenses but was pleasantly surprised at the size of the monetary fine, the maximum allowable.

But Vanderlaan isn't planning to change the station of his old office stereo just yet. He says he'll be listening to the show.

"If Clear Channel doesn't stop this, we will file another complaint," he said. "Clear Channel should understand we know how to do this, we have the resources, we have the knowledge and we got more tapes."

- Marcus Franklin can be reached at mfranklin@sptimes.com or 727 893-8488.

[Last modified February 1, 2004, 01:45:59]

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