Pointing to a recent court decision that struck down federal restrictions on indecent broadcasting, officials at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) said this week they might not be able to stop the company that employs Howard Stern, the radio personality, from buying more stations.
Mr. Stern's chief critic at the FCC, James Quello, a commissioner, conceded Thursday that the commission would face big legal obstacles in any attempt to block Infinity Broadcasting Corp., Mr. Stern's employer, from buying three radio stations for $170 million.
Last week, the commission turned aside pleas by Infinity executives and delayed approving the company's application to buy the three stations. But an outright denial of the transactions now seems unlikely.
"I don't think we can use the withholding of a license as a sanction in itself," Mr. Quello said.
Mr. Quello, who has tried to block Infinity's plans for expansion, said the deals could be stopped only by trying to revoke all of Infinity's radio licenses -- an unlikely move that would lead to a long court fight.
The commission has been locked in a running battle with Infinity VTC over Mr. Stern's raucous, scatological broadcasts and discussions of topics like the size of sexual organs.
Since 1990, the commission has imposed about $1.2 million in fines on Infinity. The company is challenging the fines in court and has yet to pay them.
Infinity Broadcasting executives and Mr. Stern declined to comment on the issue Thursday.
In December, Infinity executives said that a delay on at least one acquisition past Jan. 1 would cost it millions of dollars because of financial penalties in its contract to buy a Los Angeles station, KRTH-FM, for $110 million.
In addition to the deal to buy the Los Angeles station, Infinity is trying to buy two stations in the Baltimore-Washington area -- WPGC-AM (1580) and WPGC-FM (95.5) -- for $60 million.
Infinity already owns three area radio stations -- WJFK-AM (1300), WLIF-FM (101.9) and Washington's WJFK-FM (106.7). Mr. Stern's show airs on WJFK-AM and WJFK-FM, from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m. weekdays.
Infinity, which is based in New York, owns 20 stations in bicities and has been one of the most aggressive buyers of radio stations.
Other officials of the commission are unhappy about remarks Mr. Quello made last week to reporters.
Aides to two commissioners, Ervin Duggan and Andrew Barrett, disputed Mr. Quello's contention that they had agreed to delay a decision on Infinity simply because of new complaints against Mr. Stern.
Rather, they said, the decision was held up because the commission was still analyzing a recent federal court decision on indecency rules.
Mr. Quello said Thursday that his earlier remarks were "absolutely accurate" and that he had an informal agreement to delay action from both Mr. Barrett and Mr. Duggan until the FCC resolves two new complaints stemming from several of Mr. Stern's shows last summer.