Cleaning Up the Airwaves
Alum's renewal efforts get 'shock-jock' off the air
By Phil deHaan '84

Doug and Doris Vanderlaan
Doug and Doris Vanderlaan's renewal efforts start in their own neighborhood with this home renovation.

It’s a steamy Saturday morning in Jacksonville, Fla., the last day in what has been a week of sweltering temperatures.

Most people are headed to water. The roads leading east out of Jacksonville, toward the Atlantic Ocean and such spots as Jacksonville Beach and Ponte Vedra, are filled with carloads of people carting preparations for an all-day beach stay. Anyone not headed to the shore is likely looking for a swimming pool or air conditioning.

But near downtown Jacksonville, by the St. John’s River that bisects the city, Doug Vanderlaan ’79 is rehabbing a neglected bungalow, a historic home whose once charming appeal has long ago lost its charm. Doug and his wife, Doris, now own this structure and are in the process of rescuing it from years of damage, including an onslaught of voracious termites.

From 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday to Friday, Doug Vanderlaan (who has a degree in chemistry from Calvin and a Ph.D. in chemistry from Florida State University) is a scientist in the contact lens division at Johnson and Johnson in Jacksonville.

But at night, and on Saturdays, Vanderlaan is working hard at the rehabbing. And, despite the heat and the hassles of the reconstruction, Vanderlaan is happy to be making a difference in a neighborhood — his neighborhood.

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In fact, Doug and Doris and their two boys live right next door to the neglected bungalow, in a three-story Queen Anne Victorian they bought a few years back before returning it to its original glory. Both homes are in a neighborhood known as Springfield, an area that is in transition. The dealers are still here, though fewer than before. The hookers, too. Yet this is where the Vanderlaans have laid their foundation, cleaning up, little by little, trying to bring things back to how they once were.

Vanderlaan said simply: “We wanted to be part of restoring this neighborhood.”

That meant jumping at the chance to buy the house next to theirs and now putting in the hard work necessary to make it a worthy place to live. It also means, for Vanderlaan, being more than just “an investor” in the neighborhood. There are people who come into the area looking to buy cheap, spend some money on renovations and then make a quick buck. Vanderlaan’s not necessarily against that. But, for him, investing in his neighborhood means a little more.

“Our investment,” he said, “includes living here and working to make this a better place for others to live.”

Odd as it may sound, that’s why he carries a digital camera in his car. As he drives through his neighborhood, on his way to work or running errands, he keeps an eye out for drug dealers. And when he sees them, he snaps their pictures with his Sony Cybershot camera.

“I know many of them by name,” Vanderlaan said casually. “It irritates the heck out of them when I take their picture, but that’s OK. It’s part of what it means to clean up this neighborhood. And it’s working. They know when I take their picture that I know who they are. And they know I’ve got a way to describe them to the police. It’s a pretty effective strategy.”

Doug Vanderlaan says what he’s doing is no big deal. It’s how he was raised, lessons learned already as a young boy from his parents, lessons reinforced during four years at Calvin, lessons he’s still learning — and still teaching to his children.

And truth be told, Vanderlaan is just as low-key about another recent claim to fame, a quest to clean up radio that took three years of his life and led to one of the nation’s largest radio conglomerates being assessed a record fine of $755,000 by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The story was told by the Los Angeles Times, not to mention numerous Florida media. It led to an interview on Fox’s O’Reilly Factor and a variety of television and radio interviews in Florida.

Most media were surprised to find that Vanderlaan, a registered Democrat, did not fit their stereotype of the typical media watchdog. In addition to his political leanings, and his decision to live in and make better a tough neighborhood, he plays guitar in his church’s praise band, counts The Simpsons among his favorite television shows and this year took his son to a Prince concert (as a Calvin student, Vanderlaan was in a Christian rock band called Ebenezer).

Meanwhile, the disc jockey who got him started on his crusade is a Howard Stern clone whose radio name was Bubba the Love Sponge and who, after a series of radio jobs, and firings, landed in Tampa at WXTB-FM in 1996, where he soon began to make his mark on Florida radio.

WXTB is one of 1,000 radio stations owned nationwide by Clear Channel Communications. Eventually, Bubba’s show was syndicated and started appearing on other Clear Channel stations, including WPLA-FM in Jacksonville. There, Vanderlaan first learned of Bubba’s brand of radio. And what he heard appalled him. In fact, the first time he stumbled across the show, Bubba was encouraging teens to check out porn Web sites and become Web masters themselves. He asked a woman if she could make regular trips to Tampa to have sex with him.

Doug Vanderlaan
Vanderlaan spent more than a year writing letters to advertisers and collecting data on the controversial "Bubba the Love Sponge" radio program to present to the Federal Communications Commission.

“And that was some of the tame stuff,” Vanderlaan recalled. “What really got me angry, and what most media kind of missed in telling our story, was the glorification of drug use on the show. It was blatant. How ironic that even as the government is spending billions of dollars to prevent people from using dangerous drugs, this radio show was joking about and encouraging kids to use drugs.”

Vanderlaan said that as he listened, he felt a sense of purpose, perhaps even a sense of calling.

“I’m very much a Calvinist, I guess,” Vanderlaan said. “I believe Christians have an obligation to engage in cultural issues. As I listened to Bubba, I thought, ‘Somebody ought to do something.’ And then I thought, ‘Why not me?’ I always felt like all of the pieces were in place for me to put a stop to it.”

So he began to tape the show and then log the content. What he found was a barrage of lewd, crude and rude morning show content: cartoon character voices talking about smoking crack, the afternoon “bong brigade,” jokes about date rape and more.

He began his crusade by writing the advertisers who bought time on Bubba’s show. He asked them simply if they were aware of what the show was all about. And he challenged them to not support the kind of programming Bubba was bringing to Florida’s airwaves. Over some three years Vanderlaan estimates that he wrote about 600 letters to various state, regional and national advertisers.

Many of those advertisers responded by pulling their business. In many cases, Vanderlaan said, those advertisers were blissfully unaware of what they had been supporting, having left their ad buys in the hands of national companies who purchased airtime in bulk, often with no idea of where and when the ads would run.

But Vanderlaan felt more could be done.

So he began looking into lodging an official complaint with the FCC. He was surprised to learn that the FCC really doesn’t do much about the content of the nation’s airwaves. Even when it is made aware of a potentially offensive situation, such as Bubba’s show, its procedure is to not pursue such situations but, rather, to encourage the listener to log and document his complaint and then bring all of the necessary paperwork to the FCC.

Despite his disappointment at realizing how few teeth the FCC actually has, Vanderlaan persevered. He wrote a letter to online magazine Salon about his efforts and, as a result, received a phone call from a lawyer in Washington, D.C., who was interested in assisting him at no charge. Finally, in April of 2002 Doug and Doris filed a complaint with the FCC, after taping and monitoring hundreds of hours worth of Bubba’s show. Their paper trail was persuasive. In January of 2004, the FCC ruled. And its conclusions were clear.

"I believe Christians have an obligation to engage in cultural issues. As I listened to Bubba, I thought, ‘Somebody ought to do something.’ And then I thought, ‘Why not me?’" — Doug Vanderlaan

The FCC said that the radio stations that had aired the show (all of which are subsidiaries of Clear Channel Communications) willfully and repeatedly aired indecent material. And those stations, added the FCC, would be culpable to the tune of three-quarters of a million dollars. The ruling got Clear Channel’s attention. Bubba was dismissed. Said Clear Channel: “We recognize the importance of understanding and airing content that is consistent with the standards and sensibilities of the local communities we serve. After conducting a review of the Bubba the Love Sponge Show, we concluded the show will no longer be carried in our markets."

The news was immensely gratifying to Doug and Doris Vanderlaan. It was what they had been after for almost three years.

“We were successful beyond our expectations,” said Vanderlaan. “I think we had hoped at most to force a toning down of the content. I didn’t think we’d get him off the air. At the same time, Bubba the Love Sponge was not the main issue. Clear Channel’s responsibility to the community was our main concern. When we heard what they had to say about airing content consistent with the standards of the communities they serve, our jaws dropped. It was a home run. They stepped into the public arena and said that they were wrong and that they were going to change. And so far they’ve lived up to their word.”

The Clear Channel statement got the attention of national news media who, after the Janet Jackson Super Bowl incident, were increasingly interested in stories about decency, indecency and the media. Soon, media from not only the Jacksonville area, but all over Florida and beyond, came calling. Most media who spoke with Vanderlaan about his fight asked simply: Why?

The question, Vanderlaan said, continues to surprise him. What he and Doris did, he said, rose deep from a parent’s instinct to watch out for things that harm his children and to protect his kids from those things.

“It was just natural,” he said of his efforts, “a parental instinct to some extent. I think when you see something that can harm your kids and harm your neighbors’ kids, you work to get rid of it. My parental instinct in listening to Bubba was that this is bad for kids, not only for my kids, but for all kids.”

As Vanderlaan’s victory received wider and wider media attention, he also became a target for criticism.

During his crusade he received hate mail and harassing phone calls. Free speech advocates slammed his effort as censorship, saying that if he didn’t like Bubba’s show, all he had to do was change the channel.

Vanderlaan believes such charges are a red herring. The airwaves, he said, are akin to a public park. If someone was selling pornography at a public park, he reasons, people would not stand idly by and allow it to happen. The same is true of radio.

“People should be able to listen to whatever they want,” he said, “but without any restrictions? I don’t believe anyone would advocate for people being able to say anything they want on the air. We do set standards for what we as a community say is acceptable. I think it’s the responsibility of parents, teachers, churches, society and, yes, broadcasters to help set good standards and to help young people make good decisions.”

Interestingly, the one group he never got any criticism from was his fellow neighbors.

“My friends in this neighborhood, who are also working to restore this neighborhood, understood very well why I had done what I had done,” he said. “Many of them are not necessarily Christians, but they have the same mindset I do. I felt like the same thing we were doing with radio, we’re now doing with this house. I think they agreed.”

And while Vanderlaan vows to continue to be a watchful observer of the media in his Jacksonville community, his activist days, he asserts, are probably behind him. Both his boys are out of the house, and it will be tougher for him to know what the next generation of issues for young people is apt to be. But he hopes the next generation of parents will be ready to pick up his torch.

“When opportunities to make a difference present themselves to you,” he said, “don’t shy away from it. This whole thing with Bubba just sort of fell into my lap. But I guess I ran with it. That’s the thing Christians ought to do. Now my opportunities are in this neighborhood.”

And with that, Doug Vanderlaan leaves the cool of his air-conditioned home, hammer in hand, to head back into the afternoon heat and continue the work next door.

— Phil deHaan is Calvin’s media relations director.