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LOCAL News :: Media Criticism

"Shut Up! It's Our Turn To Talk"

Report on FCC localism hearing in Monterey, CA
"Shut Up! It's Our Turn To Talk"

by Liam O'Donoghue
From Issue 3, Fault Lines, SF Bay Area Independent Media Center

FCC berated by public at hearing on broadcast localism

At 7am on July 21, when the FCC began distributing tickets for a hearing on broadcast localism that was scheduled to begin 11 hours later that day, the line at the Monterey Conference Center had grown to nearly 100. During the first round of limited ticket distribution two days earlier, the front of the line had been stacked with almost 50 paid employees of media giant Clear Channel, and many of the union members, media activists and concerned citizens who had made the two-hour drive from San Francisco to Monterey went home empty handed. Jim Burns showed up two and a half hours before the 150 tickets were to be distributed that day and was shocked to learn that everyone at the front of the line had been ordered to leave work to get tickets. He said, “Clear Channel is a multi-billion dollar company that has access to the FCC anytime they want, and here they were, gobbling up the public’s chance to speak with the FCC directly.?
Although FCC Chairman Michael Powell had just announced his decision not to attend the only West Coast localism hearing and the public response portion of the conference would be limited to two hours, with two-minute limits for individual comments, the crowd gathered in Monterey was determined to respond to the FCC’s request for public feedback on the condition of TV and radio.
The Monterey conference was one of five conferences held in smallish cities around the US to supposedly gather advice from the public about how it can promote localism (community coverage and involvement) in radio and TV broadcasting. Responding to public outcry and the dismay of media workers regarding the dramatic decline of localism and quality news and political coverage in the wake of deregulatory legislation that allowed the vast majority of media outlets to be consolidated by a handful of corporations, the FCC is considering measures such as increasing minimum requirements for public service programming and issuing more licenses for low-power FM (LPFM) radio stations. Although the press conferences and demonstrations held by various unions and media activist groups outside of the Conference Center and the two-hour tongue-lashing of the FCC during the open mic portion of the hearing indicate that the public is almost unanimously in favor of these proposed measures, many expressed skepticism that the generally pro-corporate FCC was really serious about revising regulation in favor of the public interest. “Go back to Washington D.C. and make your rules? said Dan San, a microradio DJ from Free Radio Santa Cruz (FRSC) during the public comment session, “we’ll continue to break them.?
Pirates and unions fight the corporate octopus
Although the explosion of corporate consolidation has drastically affected the content of all media outlets, the effects of deregulation are best illustrated by looking at radio in the wake of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Prior to the deregulation, Clear Channel owned 30 stations, now they own over 1,200, resulting in airwaves that are saturated with homogenous, syndicated content. The confrontational remarks about “breaking the rules? made by Dan San at the hearing reflect more than just cynicism on the part of those who have been struggling to provide an alternative to mainstream media for years; the pioneers of the microradio movement will be excluded even if Congress does decide to grant more LPFM licenses this fall. “We’re not eligible for an LP license,? said FRSC veteran DJ Vinny Lombardo AKA V-Man. “There’s no amnesty for pirate radio broadcasters who have been previously warned by the FCC, even though they wouldn’t have even thought about legitimizing LPFM stations if it weren’t for the thousands of microbroadcasters that have been going on the air for years in defiance of the law.?
Around the time FRSC was founded ten years ago, dozens of pirate microradio stations were popping up on the airwaves from Miami to Seattle. Some were created to promote local, underground music scenes, others served as vehicles for radical (right and left wing) political agendas, but, due to advanced tracking equipment, the conservative Bush administration, and the threat of massive fines, most of these stations have gone off the air. In summer of 2003, the FCC issued a license for 96.3, the frequency that FRSC had been using for almost a decade, to a Christian rock radio chain. FRSC changed their frequency to 101.1 and moved their studio, but five days later, FCC agents appeared with a cease and desist order. “We never stopped broadcasting,? said V-Man. “The City Council even passed a resolution supporting our mission. It’s important to stay on the air, because the people who aren’t being served by the corporate broadcasters need a voice.?
Media activists aren’t the only ones criticizing the effects of corporate media dominance. The day before the Monterey Conference, unions representing over half a million workers, including the National Writers Union and the Screen Actors Guild, sent a letter to the FCC calling for increased public participation in the proceedings related to media ownership regulations. A slew of recent polls revealed the overwhelmingly negative opinion of corporate ownership held by most media workers. For example, 74 percent surveyed in a Newspaper Guild study said allowing one company to own a major newspaper and a major television station in the same city would have negative consequences for news coverage and journalism and a recent AFL-CIO poll found that 69 percent believe that corporate owners already have too much influence over news coverage. “Ever since the FCC really started pushing deregulation with the 1996 Telecommunications Act, media ownership consolidation has been harming local and national news coverage and really harming a key element of democracy in this country,? said John Connolly, President of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. “Even as the literal number of entertainment, news and information outlets increases, actual decision-making- including news judgment- is falling into fewer and fewer hand, but the entire labor movement has got behind this in a very profound way.?
In addition to worries regarding the quality of media, workers have expressed concern regarding anti-labor practices among the conglomerates. During a speech outside the FCC Conference, Louie Rocha, President of the Communications Workers of America, Local 9423, explained how Comcast, the nation’s largest cable operator, has gobbled up local competition, avoided taxes, and cited an FCC report that blames Comcast’s market power for skyrocketing prices. He said, “Union-busting, which I personally witnessed when assisting Comcast workers to organize, outsourcing, reductions in benefits, and downward pressure on wages, is occurring at the same time that the company’s profits are soaring.?
According to the union polls (conducted anonymously) and the personal testimony of Davey D, a DJ from KPFA Berkeley and one of the panelists at the localism hearing, media workers are afraid to speak out against corporate media policies or dissent from corporate politics for fear of being blackballed in the industry. In October 2001, while Davey D was a DJ on KMEL, he conducted an interview with Congresswoman Barbara Lee, the only member of Congress to vote against going to war in Afghanistan. He was promptly fired from the station, which had recently been acquired by Clear Channel. During his panel testimony, which elicited a standing ovation, Davey D explained how corporate stations tightly control political coverage and perspectives and limit airplay to corporate recording artists.
Reclaiming the Airwaves
On June 24, a federal appeals court overturned the FCC’s latest deregulation plan as a result of a suit brought by Prometheus Radio Project. The court determined that the FCC relied on "irrational assumptions and inconsistencies" in determining the new cross-ownership caps, and ordered them to make a new decision that takes seriously their duty to regulate media to preserve the public interest. Free Press and other media organizations fighting for legislative reform claim that most deregulation laws were made behind closed doors, under the radar of the general public, but now that the public is aware of the dismal effects of corporate conglomeration on local coverage and entertainment quality, the key is grassroots organizing, education, and constant pressure on the FCC and Congress.
The primary duty of the FCC is supposedly to ensure that broadcasters who have been given monopolistic control of the pubic spectrum serve the needs and interests of their communities of license. One major criticism of the FCC is that they have shirked this duty, through lax enforcement of public service requirements, as recent investigations by Media Alliance and the SF Bay Guardian have shown. Instead, the FCC has focused its resources on fighting unlicensed broadcasters, such as San Francisco Liberation Radio. Although, patrolling the airwaves for “pirates? is also a duty, many of the stations they have shut down were fulfilling the very public services ignored by the corporate stations. The case of San Francisco Liberation Radio exemplifies how the FCC has contradicted the priorities of its own purpose, possibly in violation of the Constitution, in what many believe is blatant kowtowing to corporate interests.
On October 16, 2003, shortly after the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed a resolution supporting SFLR and asking the FCC and SF Police to leave the station alone, the microbroadcasters’ studio was raided by a team of 20 gun-wielding, battering ram-bearing federal agents, SF police, and FCC agents. SFLR was started by Richard Edmundson in the early 90s to broadcast news about the police harassment of Food Not Bombs activists. Over 60 members comprised the radio collective, which broadcast music and news daily, but following the FCC order and confiscation of all studio equipment, the station has disintegrated.
Although SFLR has been silenced on the airwaves, it has filed a civil suit against the FCC, denying the constitutionality of the raid by claiming that their due process had been violated. If successful, the suit will make it much more difficult and costly for the FCC to shut down microradio stations, but the SFLR collective is pursuing the suit for reasons beyond retribution. Along with other Bay Area microradio stations, such as Berkeley Liberation Radio, which have chosen to publicly challenge the FCC instead of backing down, SFLR is trying to bring the issue of corporate media control into the spotlight.

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