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Ralph Nader > Special Features > The Audience Network

The Audience Network: TIME FOR THE PEOPLE

By Ralph Nader

“Viewers and listeners have been without the capability to develop an organized media community of their own to influence public policy. The creation of such an organized, informed constituency of viewers and listeners is not only an urgent necessity for an initiatory media, but also within reach.”

The First Amendment recognizes that communica­tion among citizens is the cornerstone of our democratic form of government. Yet the increasing concentration of control over communications technology since 1934 has made most persons second class citizens under the First Amendment. Ordinary citizens can speak to their neighbors, but they cannot speak to millions of their fellow Americans through the electronic media without paying a giant toll and obtaining the permission of large corporations. On the other hand, the powerful few

Capital Cities (ABC), CBS, General Electric (NBC), Westinghouse, Post-Newsweek—can use their licenses to command national audiences and decide the price, frequency, and use of communications systems with global reaches. This gross inequality of electronic ac­cess through the workings of exclusive license authori­ties, forces the public to rely on a few corporations’ per­ceptions of society, politics, the arts, and the public itself. A democracy does not thrive when information sources, values and access remain so limited.

Recent technological advances have placed us on the edge of a popular communications revolution. A decen­tralized, diverse communications future is within our reach. In that future, cities, towns, villages, unions, students, artists, citizen groups, and other constituen­cies can have access to their own television channels. Communications satellites, the harbingers of a daz­zling abundance of instant communications, will revo­lutionize the adage that: Information is the currency of democracy? Instead of being mere recipients of what a few large corporations beam to them, citizens can be­come active themselves in the communications proc­ess. No longer will viewers and listeners be told that the only alternative to their dislike of programs is to turn off their sets. The choices will be far more numerous, more affirmative or initiatory, and the difference be­tween programs more genuine.

None of this however is automatic. The 1934 Com­munications Act is inadequate to foster such diversity and decentralization. We need guaranteed access to a communications system of broadcast, cable, and satel­lite facilities that will directly serve the interests of the public — not the over-reaching interests of spectrum monopolists whose power has grown under the current Act. We need new legislation that will recognize abroad right of public access and participation in our commu­nication system.

Other countries have recognized the substantial benefits of direct public participation in broadcast communications systems. In the Netherlands, for example, all citizen groups with a membership of 60,000 or more are granted television and radio air time. The amount of air time per week is determined by the number of members in the citizen group; the larger groups with over 450,000 are granted the most airtime, and those from between 300,000 and 450,000 and 150,000 and 300,000 are granted proportionately less of the 109 hours per week of television time and 500 hours per week of radio time. Groups with between 60,000 and 150,000 members are entitled to three hours per week of radio and one hour per week of television broadcasting time, or both. This allows more citizen groups to generate their own programs and to air issues of concern to society. Such open programming by diverse groups, offering various perspectives, embodies the marketplace of ideas that is the basis of democracy in this country. Our representative form of government needs such openness to work effectively.

Congress, however, has not developed a system where the public interest is served by granting the public access to the airwaves. The Federal Communi­cations Commission (FCC) does, however, regulate the broadcast industry and new technologies by relying on a misplaced faith in undefined “mercantile or market forces” to advance the public interest.

This reliance on an unrepresentative marketplace, characterized by monopoly power on one hand and dis­enfranchised consumers on the other, can only carry us into a communications future determined by the hand­ful of corporate interests that control the market. The classical free market model simply does not match the existing structure of the broadcast industry. The clas­sical model talks in terms of free entry and many firms operating on a thin margin. By contrast, each broad­cast station monopolizes its frequency, and the least profitable of the television networks netted over $330 million in 1985 on the operation of its broadcast group. To regulate or legislate in the mistaken belief that the classical model applies, makes the flow of information totally dependent on the struggle of a few companies to maximize profits. Dollar profits are determining the dissemination of ideas, and information that the media find immediately unremunerative is falling by the way­side. This kind of distorted, mercantile gateway cannot be relied upon to ensure a well-informed electorate, or to expose the audience to diverse and dissenting points of view.

Given the immense concentration of power and uni­formity that characterizes the broadcasting industry, leaving the dissemination and content of new informa­tion technology to myopic profit formulas runs counter to community serum and historical precedent. Technol­ogy does not have its own imperative toward greater access and voice. Those who control technology can limit it and keep its fruits scarce and higher priced. The many years of broadcast industry opposition to cable television illustrates this point. With their reservoirs of capital and looser FCC limits on multiple ownership, the media companies, networks and their parent com­panies have continued their dominant role in control­ling the new television technologies, except for the video cassette recorder market.

At the present time, the established giants’ control over information means that they will to a large extent determine how much the public learns about new communications technology and to what extent the stations operate in the public interest. Between 1979 and 1985, while Congress held hearings and considered legislation to update and overhaul the Communications Act of 1934, no television network covered the introduction of major bills or aired documentaries on the important issues underlying the use of telecommunications in America. What are the political and legislative ramifications of this general public unawareness? To foster the continued entrenchment of the broadcasters over the airwaves.

The failure of the media to cover communications as a regular subject places a special responsibility on Congress to solicit the views of those individual citizens and local groups who are aware of the debate over communications policy. In addition, Congress has a special responsibility to enact legislation that would not only enable the people to educate themselves about crucial telecommunications policies, but would allow citizens a time slot — not the government or a few presidents of corporations — to decide what is in the interest of the public.

The airwaves remain a scarce public resource, and, despite their highly profitable exploitation by private entrepreneurs, they remain public property. Thus the public interest standard must remain the cornerstone of telecommunications policy. Over fifty years ago, Con­gress recognized the fundamental rights of the public in the electromagnetic spectrum when it rejected out­right sale of space on that spectrum, and empowered the FCC to grant licenses only if the “public interest, convenience, and necessity” would be served thereby. Likewise, a unanimous Supreme Court has declared that the “rights of the viewers and listeners, not the rights of the broadcasters.., are paramount.” The public interest standard — and its corollaries, the Fair­ness Doctrine and the Equal Time Rule — have given citizen groups the power to challenge stations that have provided prejudicial or grossly inadequate cover­age of events, racial groups, or issues of public concern in a community.

In the past, these challenges have resulted in occa­sional citizen-broadcaster agreements that have im­proved the quality of local programming. However, the FCC’s actions to promote the public interest standard by way of “deregulation,” which favors marketplace forces, has sharply restricted the ability of listeners and viewers to hold accountable the corporations who profit by using the public’s airwaves. The minimal nature of the obligations imposed on broadcasters have never been equal to the ever-increasing value, in terms of money and influence, that a broadcast license gener­ates. It is time to require that the public receive a more reciprocal benefit for the lucrative use of their air­waves.

The public interest standard alone has not proven sufficient to ensure that the public, which owns the air­waves, has a role in telecommunications policies or has access to the airwaves. Such access is necessary if we are to fulfill the ideal of the First Amendment: to promote the widest possible dissemination of informa­tion from diverse and antagonistic sources. In this era of rampant deregulation of the broadcast industry, the public has little chance to inform itself or be heard.

Yet for years, the broadcast industry has acted as an organized community — getting what it wants from Congress and the FCC, and giving what it wants to the unorganized public. Though broadcast executives talk knowingly of ‘what the public wants,’ citizens them­selves have never been granted time on their own air­waves to search, think and program what they want. Viewers and listeners have been without the capability to develop an organized community of their own to influence public policy. The creation of such an organ­ized, informed constituency of viewers and listeners is not only an urgent necessity for an initiatory media, but also within reach.

To organize and mobilize the audience, you can create the framework for a national membership insti­tution of viewers and listener — let us call this institution the Audience Network. Audience Network, a Congressionally-chartered non-profit corporation, could serve as the audience’s ‘community intelligence.’ The group’s primary organizing and educating tool would be air time. Congress would grant the democratically operated group 60 minutes of time on each commercial radio and television station every day during prime time (television) and drive time (radio). Audience Network could agree with the stations to exchange these time slots for whenever necessary to better serve the membership and needs of the public. In addition, Audience Network could sell a limited amount of its daily air time to the stations to raise funds for its activities. By granting Audience Network the right to prime time, Congress gives the organization effective bargaining power vis-à-vis the stations.

During its time slot, the Audience Network would air a variety of cultural, political, entertainment, scien­tific or other programs that it produced or obtained. It would periodically inform the public about the organization’s activities and discuss media reform is­sues. With its financial resources, and its access to airtime, Audience Network, at both local and national levels, could also provide central production facilities and act as a time broker for other non-profit groups that wished to professionally produce and air programs.

The structure of the Audience Network organiza­tion would be similar to that of the successful Citizen’s Utility Boards (CUBs), which represent the interests of utility consumers at the state level. Audience Network would represent the interests of its members before the FCC, the courts, and Congress itself — wherever broad­casting policy is being made. Any citizen over the age of 16 could become a member of Audience Network by contributing a modest amount, say $10 annually, to the organization. Members’ contributions would consti­tute Audience Network’s basic source of funding; the group would require no expenditure of tax dollars.

The Audience Network would be governed demo­cratically. Members would elect delegates who would in turn elect a board of directors to decide what projects and programming the group would pursue. A power to recall delegates would further ensure accountability. Because the public must take the affirmative step of joining and thereby funding Audience Network, the organization is assured active participants and would rightly fold if adequate membership was not forthcom­ing. Based on the CUB experience, that seems unlikely. Other mechanisms, whereby directors and delegates can serve only limited terms and are required to survey the interests of their members, will also assure that Audience Network will not become a lazy or wasteful bureaucracy, but instead an organization that is re­sponsive to the needs of those it represents.

With a fulltime staff Audience Network could, for example, advocate broadcast reform measures; litigate a case of racial or sex discrimination by a station man­ager, conduct economic studies of the broadcast mar­ketplace; provide healthy on-the-air critiques of broad­caster performance, and suggestions for improvement, or, via local chapters, evaluate children’s programming on local stations. In addition, Audience Network could allocate a portion of its funds for community outreach and seminars to educate citizens for meaningful par­ticipation in the organization. Audience Network would provide a flow of ideas and imagination from the people of this country to the people of this country through their communication system for a change. Electronic media literacy would be on its way.

The Audience Network, in short, could serve as a self-funded, independent ongoing communications link among viewers and listeners. According to a sur­vey conducted by the Annenburg School of Communications, the public demands no less. Three-quarters of those polled felt 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 sizeable portion of the population would try their hand at television communication.” Congress should reflect the will of the people and give the public that community opportunity. A modest portion of the public’s airwaves should be returned to that public in a systematic, yet flexible manner of uses. Let the audience give itself what it wants and needs.

People interested in receiving FREE information about Audience Network should contact:

Project Coordinator

Audience Network

PO 19367

Washington, DC 20036