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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > How to Give the Radio-TV Audience a Voice

An important group always has been missing during the decades of interactions between the broadcast­ing industry, the FCC and the Con­gress. The missing group is what these three parties always are deliber­ating about. But they seem uninter­ested in providing it with a well-equipped right of access. The group of course is the television and radio audience — the consumers of the electronic media who pay all the bills.

The time now is particularly right for recognizing the audience, because Congress is in the midst of rewriting the nation’s communications laws first passed in 1934. Yet some propo­nents of the legislation, such as Rep. Lionel Van Deerlin, D-Calif., find lit­tle space for audience recognition in their lengthy draft bill. They want to deregulate much of the broadcast industry by eliminating the public in­terest standard, the fairness doctrine and eventually station licensing renewals.

But deregulating the industry sim­ply gives the industry more de facto regulatory power over the audience. The Van Deerlin bill (H.R. 3333) chooses to rely on “marketplace forces.” This broadcasting market is not a free-market model but is characterized by a monopoly power on the one hand and disenfranchised consumers on the other.

I propose that Congress, in rewrit­ing the communications laws, empower the creation of an organ­ized, informed constituency of view­ers and listeners. Let us call this new group the Audience Network. As a congressionally chartered, nonprofit institution, the Audience Network would serve as the viewers’ and lis­teners’ “community intelligence.” It would represent the interests of its members before the FCC, the courts and Congress itself wherever broadcasting policy is being made.

Any citizen could become a mem­ber of the Audience Network by con­tributing a modest amount, say $5 annually, in dues to the organization. Members’ contributions would consti­tute Audience Network’s basic source of funding; the group would receive no tax dollars.

Governed democratically by voting members, elected delegates and a board of directors, the Audience Net­work would be given 30 minutes of air time on each radio and television sta­tion each day during prime time (tele­vision) and drive time (radio).

During its time slot, the Audience Net­work and its local chapters around the country would inform the public about media subjects, its own activi­ties and produce or obtain a variety of programs.

With a professional staff and production facilities, the Audience group could range from issues of audi­ence rights to interviews of contro­versial people; lively critiques or sat­ire of existing TV programs from the nightly news to talk shows and soap operas.

Walter Cronkite, for example, could be interviewed about his criticisms of TV news — a subject he has discussed in a recent speech before a publish­ers’ convention but not on television.

Many major problems confronting the nation of local communities that are largely ignored by broadcasting could find visibility on the Audience Network’s 30 minutes a day. Audience feedback and suggestions, citizen-alert bulletins and a plethora of other vital communications ideas compe­tently presented would find them­selves reaching millions of Ameri­cans.

With a staff of audience specialists, lawyers, economists and scientists, the Audience Network also could advocate broadcast reform measures, litigate, conduct economic studies and be the people’s ombudsman for the electronic media. Congress would be able to draw upon a skilled and popularly • based constituency whenever legislation was being con­sidered.

In short, the Audience Network would serve as a self-funded, inde­pendent, ongoing communications link among viewers and listeners. For years, broadcast executives have said they give their audiences “what the public wants.” Yet the members of the public themselves never have been – granted time on their own airwaves to program what they want as an organ­ized community of viewers and listen­ers. Why, Morris the Cat has had far more television air time to convey his message about cat food than 200 mil­lion Americans have had to use the same medium to convey their thoughts and programming tastes.

According to a survey conducted by the Annenberg School of Communica­tions five months ago, three-quarters of the people polled agreed that “broadcast time should be set aside for ordinary people to show their pro­grams and views.”

“It would appear,” the study con­cluded, “that were the opportunity available, a sizable portion of the population would try their hand at television communication.”

Congress can return a very modest portion of the public’s airwaves to the public’s control. Write your member of Congress for his or her opinion on the proposed Audience Network. For more information about the idea, write to Howard Symons, P.O. Box 19404, Washington, D.C., 20036. Please include a stamped, self-addressed en­velope.