FCC and Radio Airwaves

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is proposing to turn over the operation of the public’s airways almost entirely to the radio stations. There now are so many radio stations, offering so much choice of communications, some FCC officials argue, that there no longer is any need to retain traditional public interest standards.

Specifically, the FCC wants “marketplace forces” to replace existing requirements. Under the FCC’s notice, if adopted, there will be:

1. No required news, public affairs or other informational programming;

2. No commercial limits–broadcasters would be free to air unlimited commercials;

3. No requirement to ascertain the needs and problems of their local communities; and

4. No requirement to keep records of programming. The commission is not proposing to eliminate the Fairness Doctrine which requires presentation of diverse views on issues of public importance. But without programming records to examine, citizens will be very hard pressed to implement the Fairness Doctrine.

At a recent meeting of citizen groups in Washington, the FCC proposal was subjected to wide-ranging criticism. Why, it was asked, is the FCC not going to hold field hearings on these matters so that people in local communities can present testimony and ask the commissioners questions without having to go to Washington? Minority group representatives declared that the “marketplace forces” ideology of FCC chairman Charles Ferris does not include poor black consumers within its demographics. Others in attendance asserted that free speech is not an economic issue and cannot be bartered away to the mercantile standard of dollar maximization.

Professor Charles Firestone of the UCLA communications law program decried the “inappropriate economic analysis” of the radio industry that is invoked by chairman Ferris to abandon the FCC’s public interest standards. Firestone forecast the probable loss of public service announcements if the commission jettisons its nonentertainment requirements. The targeting of high—buying audiences for radio advertisers would become the norm, he observed, without the community information ascertainment rule. And without program logs, the evidence–the data base for determining how the FCC’s new policies, if adopted, are working–would be lost.

This recommended giveaway, Firestone adds, could well be a prelude to a similar proposal for television–that is, moving from an individual, renewable licensing approach, under public standards, to a monopoly marketplace under a perpetual license.

Not all the FCC commissioners are of chairman Ferris’ mind. Commissioner Washburn, a Nixon appointee, has questioned whether the profit motive alone could provide sufficient incentive for broadcasters to provide adequate public service. Commissioner Fogarty wonders why experiments in a few radio markets could not be conducted to build a factual record that would provide a legally sound basis for the FCC’s recommendations.

I suspect some people at the radio stations also may be unhappy about chairman Ferris’ position. They include the community service and public affairs people, who have been hired in increasing numbers by the highly profitable radio stations, to meet the present FCC public interest standards. The prospect of robot-operated radio stations, drenched in music, canned entertainment and commercials, should concern them as well.

It seems to me that radio station management, now enjoying boom times, should oppose the Ferris positions. Otherwise, they will be exposed to a low common denominator pull toward over commercialization and media putty which, a few years later, could well produce a strong counteraction by increasingly sophisticated community media reform groups in cities around the country.

The public flow of information requires a competitive prod more pervasive than turning the dial. Listeners must be given an opportunity, in the form of a community intelligence, to appeal to public affairs programming and other contemporary FCC standards. Their requirements provide an incentive through radio station programming diversity and innovation. Worked more actively, they would provide an active voice for listeners to attach to.

With increasing concentration of group radio station ownership, the FCC should be taking a more provocative role instead of letting the dollar be the sole gate-keeper for information to the public.

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