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Let the marketplace reglate broadcasting

By Jerome GillmanJerome Gillman is General Manager of WDST in Woodstock N.Y. / March 19, 1981



To deregulate the broadcast industry, or not to deregulate -- that is the question the Congress ponders. Plainly the mood of the Congress is to follow the President's lead too "get government off the back of business." But opponents of deregulation fear that the marketplace is incapable of self-regulation on the matter of the public interest and that the airwaves will be saturated with nothing but commercials. Well-meaning opponents of deregulation display a woeful lack of understanding of the free enterprise system and an incredible naivete about the regulators.

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As a very new broadcaster, I have some knowledge of the free enterprise system. Our radio station has only been licensed for 11 months but in that relatively short time, I've learned that broadcasting is highly competitive business. In our license application to the Federal Communications Commission, we stated our intention of broadcasting no more than 15 minutes of commercials in any given hour. (In Practice, we rarely exceed eight.) Were the FCC to disappear overnight -- "a consummation devoutly to be wished" -- the marketplace would force us to honor our commitment. How could I possibly jump to 59 commercial minutes?

Our advertisers would not stand for their messages being buried in an unrelieved clutter of sales pitches, advertising agencies would be unable to point with pride to results achieved, and consumers could not elicit the information they want from the unrelived barrage. And radio's raison d'etre -- news and information -- would disappear.

More to the point, who'd listen? Would youm listen to a station which aired nothing but commercials for a majority of every broadcast hour? Would you read a newspaper if it contained nothing but ads? Radio and television stations, like newspapers, are dependent upon advertising for survival. A newspaper with its masthead followed by unrelieved advertising would be a pennysaver or supermarket shopping guide; it would no longer be a newspaper.

The broadcast marketplace, however, would exert a prompter and more telling pressure. IF we aired commercials for 80 percent of our air time, some smart cookie would promptly say, "Hey! Let's add theirm audience to ours. All we gotta do is reduce our commercial time to 50 percent. . . ." In the hush that followed , an even smarter cookie with more raisins could surely be heard muttering, "I bet if we lower oursm to 12 percent. . . ."

We'd be back to where we are now very rapidly.

If new to the operation of a radio station, i'm experienced -- indeed cynically expert -- in the ways of the FCC, for who shall regulate the regulators ever? In the seven years it took us to obtain our license -- and this for a very small upstate New York market -- there was a platoon of FCC commissioners in and out of office. Programming was never at issue in the trial proceedings. Whether I proposed a radio equivalent of a television "wasteland" or programming of superb excellence, the FCC never knew in deciding to whom to award a license "in the public interest."

While fretting over the interminable procedure, I learned from the broadcasting trade press that the FCC was never given the authority by Congress to collect money from broadcast or renewal applicants or even the $4 it required from applicants for CB licenses. A station sued for the returnof its fee, and a federal court ordered the FCC to return the money -- all the money to all the station.Years dragged past and millions and millions of dollars in interest accrued and still the money was not returned.

The FCC asked Congress for additional budget to hire 40 more accountants to return the funds. Funds, however, were somehow available for an FCC delegation of 11 to visit mainland China for several weeks "to study telecommunications." It was common knowledge in the industry that this junket so exhausted the FCC travel budget taht there were no funds available for RI's -- the radio inspectors who visit stations to assure compliance with FCC rules.

Broadcasting magazine has reported that FCC chairman Charles Ferris was "inactive." He was a Carter appointee and his replacement will be named by President Reagan. But he has long years of government service as an aide in the Senate and did not depart until he achieved his pension. So he was inactive and did not participate in FCC decisionmaking.

Another commissioner serves as temporary chairman. Broadcasting noted that Mr. Ferris did not see fit to furrender the chairman's perks of a government limousine and chauffeur while inactive.

Even after "deregulation," some regulation of a technical nature will be necessary. But why regulate commercials, community service, and public affairs from Washington? What's better for sensible regulation, the marketplace or FCC regulators? Only the most cynical can fail to realize that the discernment and intelligence of the American consumer can do a far better job than those who are on the backs not only of business but of the imaginations, tastes, and preferences of the nation's audiences.