Don't touch that radio dial

This month the Federal Communications Commission will close its period for comments on one of the most controversial moves it has ever taken: the proposed deregulation of commercial radio. Responding to pressure from the Carter administration and the National Association of Broadcasters, the FCC hopes to turn radio over to the marketplace. Fed up with government, red tape, and paperwork, many people may delight at the prospect of deregulating yet another industry. Deregulating radio, however, is not like deregulating other industries. Radio is more than an economic marketplace. It is a marketplace of ideas, the very stuff of the democracy. Deregulation of it ought therefore to be resisted.

Regulation of broadcasting is not new. The Communications Act of 1934 has regulated the radio industry for almost 50 years. Congress recognizes that the airwaves are a scarce resource and belong to the public. Consequently, the FCC grants a three-year license to every radio station. In return for having exclusive rights to broadcast on a specific frequency for three years, the broadcaster must program in the public interest, convenience, and necessity. Accordingly the FCC is supposed to regulate in the public interest.

The current FCC deregulation proposals would:

* Drop limitations on the number of commercials on radio.

* Remove all requirements for radio stations to broadcast news, public affairs programming, public service announcements, and community service programming.

* Abolish ascertainment, the process of consulting members of the public and community leaders about local community needs and problems.

* Eliminate program logs, the public record of what a radio station broadcasts.

If the current guideline of 18 minutes of commercials an hour is dropped, the number of commercials an hour may increase, glutting the airwaves with too many commercials and keeping entertainment and informational programming off the air. If, as many broadcasters say, most stations play less than 18 minutes of commercials per hour because the public won't tolerate that many, why should the industry balk at outside limits?

The FCC's proposal to turn all news and public affairs programming over to the capriciousness of a marketplace well-known for its pursuit of the biggest audience and the biggest bucks is mind-boggling. Broadcasters sell their product -- the audience -- to advertisers. Radio stations do not like to program anything that will fragment their audience share and thus lose money. Yet, according to the FCC, the tastes, needs, and problems of specialized audiences, such as the poor, the elderly and the young, are likely to be ignored under a scheme of marketplace rather than government regulation. Surely news, public affairs programs, talk shows, public service announcements, and community bulletin boards are too crucial to local community action and a working democracy for us to risk even their possible removal from the airwaves.

The concept of ascertainment is to ensure that broadcasters keep in touch with community leaders and organizations. The public benefits from ascertainment because the problems pinpointed become subject matter for local programming and because ascertainment makes sure broadcasters get out into the community. Most important, ascertainment interviews, which a broadcaster must maintain in a public file, are tools which the FCC and the public use to judge a radio station's performance as a public trustee.

As for logs, one wonders how broadcasters, the FCC, or the public could do without them. Radio stations use logs for scheduling commercials, billing advertisers, and racking up taped material which goes on the air. The public needs them to prove points when it thinks a station has acted irresponsibly, and the FCC uses them to judge a station's performance.

Remove the safety standards for responsible broadcasting -- limits on the number of commercials and guidelines for news and public affairs programming. Remove the tools to judge a radio station's performance -- ascertainment and logs. Remove, as the FCC also suggests, comparative license proceedings. Remove all these checkpoints and this so-called "deregulation of radio" will strip the public of its rights in broadcasting and create unchallengeable licenses; in other words, federally franchised monopolies. If the American public allows it to happen in radio, it will happen in television also.

To help defeat the proposed deregulation of radio, and at least to promote wide public discussion of it, the public must bombard the FCC and elected officials with letters. The FCC wants to know how people use radio and what they expect from it. It wants specifics on how radio serves individuals and organizations in local communities.

Beyond the contents of the deregulation notice are other disturbing aspects of this proceeding. Although the FCC is empowered by Congress to serve the public interest, it has refused to hold public hearings nationwide.It has refused to put the documentation supporting its position in federal repository libraries or FCC regional offices. To study the FCC documentation, all citizens , whether they live in New England, the Pacific Northwest, or Hawaii, must travel to the FCC's second-floor reference room in Washington, D.C.

Why has public access to information and public comment been made so difficult and expensive? The cost to not-for-profit organizations should they no longer benefit from free public-service announcements, the cost to our society should its citizens be deprived of diverse information on the airwaves, will far outstrip the cost to the FCC for making certain that nationwide public discussion of its deregulation proposals takes place. Why is a major rethinking of US broadcasting policy being kept such a secret?

These are the kinds of questions which should be directed to our US senators and members of Congress, the governmental body which ultimately gives the FCC its marching orders.

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