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A Media Activist Guide to the Federal Communications Commission

The Federal Communications Commission is an independent United States Government agency, with a direct responsibility to Congress. The FCC was established by the Communications Act of 1934. They are charged with regulating interstate and international communications by radio, television, wire, satellite, and cable.

Herbert Hoover, the Secretary of Commerce in the 1920s, said that radio was the first industry he ever saw that practically "begged to be regulated." The industry begged for regulation because the key players of the industry wanted the government to keep out any challengers to their oligopoly position in their markets. Their attitude was "We got here first, now protect us from anyone else that wants to set up shop." This was all done, of course, under the rubric of "protecting from interference."
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A Media Activist Guide to the Federal Communications Commission

By Pete Tridish, of the Prometheus Radio Project,
and Danielle Redden, of the Philadelphia Coalition for Community Access

The Federal Communications Commission is an independent United States Government agency, with a direct responsibility to Congress. The FCC was established by the Communications Act of 1934. They are charged with regulating interstate and international communications by radio, television, wire, satellite, and cable.

Herbert Hoover, the Secretary of Commerce in the 1920s, said that radio was the first industry he ever saw that practically "begged to be regulated." The industry begged for regulation because the key players of the industry wanted the government to keep out any challengers to their oligopoly position in their markets. Their attitude was "We got here first, now protect us from anyone else that wants to set up shop." This was all done, of course, under the rubric of "protecting from interference."

Telecommunications Act of 1934:
A Public Interest Bargain With One Side Kept
:

The Telecommunications Act of 1934 essentially cut a deal with the existing broadcasters. The government would keep order on the airwaves and create a stable business environment. In exchange, since broadcasters get a special privilege to broadcast that other citizens do not, they must operate "In the public's interest, convenience, and necessity." At times, this has meant that they must do certain forms of public service broadcasting, broadcast messages in times of emergencies, meet certain equal opportunity hiring rules, maintain publicly accessible files, and so on.

Unfortunately, most of the "public service rules" have been whittled away by the broadcasters' legal challenges in the courts. They won many of these legal battles based on the claim that the "public service rules" infringed upon their first amendment rights. They argued that being forced to broadcast things that they did not desire to was a violation of their first amendment right to freedom of speech. There are still a few things that are required of broadcasters, but they are relatively minimal.

What the FCC
does and does not do
.

The FCC is in charge of spectrum management. They do not pass laws, they write regulations that are administrative and technical. They do not set broad policy goals. Their policy is directed by laws passed by Congress. The FCC administers these laws. They distribute licenses to broadcast TV and radio. They regulate the cable industry, telephones, wireless communications, satellite broadcasting, and any devices which may create interference to radio communications.

They auction spectrum, collecting usage fees for the US treasury. They study policy questions and emerging technologies. The FCC is also an enforcer of its regulations. The FCC enforcement agents do not have guns, and can not arrest people. First they give a warning. Next they fine (up to $11,000), then they ask the federal courts for an injunction, which is administered by federal marshals. If you violate a court injunction, you can go to jail, usually for about a year. The FCC is limited in its enforcement efforts. This is due to an enormous history of case law from the courts, and ultimately the Constitution.

Who are these people,
and what do they do with themselves all day
?

The FCC has five Commissioners. The Commissioners are appointed by the president, and must be approved by the Senate. The Senate rarely, seriously challenges an appointment, unless there are unusually strong partisan considerations. Their terms are five years, though they rarely stay that long. Serving as a FCC Commissioner is usually a stepping stone to some higher political office.

The Commissioners are always split 3 to 2, in favor of the party of the current president. The Chairman is always the party of the president. If a new president is elected, the Chairman will offer their resignation to the President. If they are of the same party, the president usually keeps the chairman. If they are from different parties, then the Chairman is replaced, altering the balance of power.

Commissioners come from various sectors up through the ranks of the FCC. Ranging from the communications industry, influential staffers for Congress, or party operatives from the Democrats or Republicans. They are almost always lawyers, and almost never engineers.

There is a large permanent civil service staff, numbering in the thousands. They revolve in and out of the FCC from the industry. The staff rise and fall in power in the agency, depending on which party holds the presidency. Usually, everyone keeps their jobs, but they get reshuffled with each new administration. The staff advise the Commissioners and write proposals, which the Commissioners decide upon. Often the Commissioners do not particularly know very much about the technologies and economics involved in intricate policy decisions, so they are very dependent on staff recommendations.

Popular Activist myths about
the FCC ( which are mostly true)


They control what
you hear in the media.


The FCC controls who gets a broadcast license or a cable franchise. They also make certain limitations on broadcasters, like the "no obscenity" rules, or the rules against advertising on non-commercial TV and Radio channels. The FCC does not, however, decide who gets a radio station based on whether they are anarchists, Anabaptists, or aardvark anatomists. They base ownership on who submits a license application that meets certain technical standards and minimal character qualifications ( no felony convictions, applicant must be a US citizen, etcetera). The FCC is in fact very scared of any form of content regulation. Over the years they have been sued into blithering submission by the broadcast industry. Also, every time that anyone in the history of the FCC has attempted to go beyond even the most meager of rules about what can and can not be said on the air, they have been slapped down by Congress.

They have
a lot of power.


Well they do, but the system is designed for precedent, sate-ability and inertia. The FCC has a lot of power to do exactly what it is supposed to do, like give out radio licenses. But Congress can always pass a law that trumps the FCC, though it is almost unheard of for either Congress or the courts to overrule the FCC on technical matters. The courts and Congress generally defer to the expertise of the FCC on any matters that involve engineering. The only exception in recent years is the Low Power FM issue, and that just barely slipped through as a rider to a "must-pass" appropriations bill. On the other hand, it is common for Congress to pass a law telling the FCC that it has to change its procedures on legal matters. For example, the FCC used to have regulations capping the number of radio stations that one company could own nationally. One company could own no more than 7 FM stations and 7 AM stations in the entire countt4ry. Then those limits were raised to 20 FM and 20 AM stations under Reagan, and finally the Congress passed the telecommunications act of 1996 and the caps were eliminated. From that point, the FCC had to allow corporations to buy up as many radio licenses as they wanted, which has allowed Clear Channel to accumulate over 1200 stations across the country.

The FCC does
not care about you.


Commissioners need to be concerned with public opinion: they usually have interests in climbing the political ladder to higher public offices. Therefore they like to use their position to grandstand and get their names in the press, or to position themselves to be executives at communications corporations. Most of the public does not know or care much about what the FCC does, but if there is a hot issue, Commissioners often want to talk about it. For example, when a commissioner is about to leave the job and run for public office, they will often ask the staff to crack down on obscenity on the airwaves, since that issue can win votes from the " Family Values" crowd.

The FCC is on top of things: the agency is in constant chaos. Every new Chairman proves that they are "against big government and bureaucracy" with some silly new "streamlining initiative" making new offices, consolidating two old bureaus under one manager who only knows about one of the fields, shifting desks around, etcetera, and nothing gets done for months. The FCC probably has more "efficiency effectiveness experts" that real communications engineers. Everyone in the FCC freely admits that their small agency has no real way of keeping up with the massive technological changes going on in the private sector, where billions are spent compared to the FCC's hundreds of thousands for research.

Information is hard to get from the FCC Actually they have an amazing website- most of what you need to know is right there. It is, however, in a language that is nearly impossible to understand until you get used to it. The staffers are just like anyone else you might meet. Some are really crabby and act like any contact with the non-engineer or lawyer public is a big imposition, while others are generous with their time and very, very nice. Some get really excited that anyone actually cares what they are doing!

You thought the voting in Florida was weird!

How a bill becomes a law, FCC Style:

Someone -- maybe from the public, or the corporations, or one of the FCC Commissioners puts in a request for a rulemaking. If the Commissioners don't care about it, it is ignored ( some requests have been sitting at the FCC since before the Commissioners were born). If the Commissioners are interested, then a notice of Inquiry (NOI) is adopted and the issue is opened to public comment. In most matters, some big corporations, a few small businesses, and one or two citizen advocates or policy nuts write comments. All the comments that go to the FCC go up on the FCC website to the amazing Electronic Comment Filing system (e-government at its best)! Anyone can therefore see the comments of any other party. Then there is a shorter period for reply comments, during which commenters can reply to the comments of others. The staff looks over all the comments and makes a recommendation to the Commissioners, who either approve it, send it back for changes, or ignore it. Strangely, they never vote anything down. They just forget about it. Decisions are always negotiated before the actual vote. If there are not enough "yes" votes for the proposal to pass, it is not voted upon.

It is important to remember: rules are made by a tiny elite in-crowd and you are not it. Most of them have a financial interest in the proceedings. There are many issues that regardless of whether or not citizens write zillions of comments, peoples comments will be ignored if they don't stand to make money for someone. On the other hand, many of the staffers who stick it out working for the government ( even though they could make two or three times as much working in the corporate sector) can be affected if they see that ordinary citizens really care about an issue. It is not uncommon for these staffers to go to bat for the "public interest, " and it can make a real difference. There are a number of elements of comments that Prometheus Radio Project and our ally organizations have made that have ended up being incorporated into federal regulations, However, in the end, no one at the FCC is truly empowered to make the sorts of fundamental changes to the system that are needed- even if the FCC staff or Commissioners wanted to.

The Faux- oppression of corporations, the pseudo-science of de-regulation

"The oppressor here is regulation."

It baffles the imagination to think of companies like Time-Warner, Disney and Clear Channel as suffering some sort of government oppression. Can you relate to the terrible misfortune of these organizations, which are currently not allowed to own more than a paltry 35% of the cable systems in the country, or more than 8 of the radio stations in a major city apiece?

Media activists everywhere need to be alarmed at this weird logic.

The new Bush- appointed FCC Chairman is Michael Powell (yes, Colin Powell's son) and he has made no secret of his desire to abandon any substantive public interest restrictions on the dominance of big media corporations, He even presented this latest move towards de-regulation as a patriotic act, declaring" The flame of the American ideal may flicker, but it will never be extinguished "We will do our small part and press on with our business, solemnly, but resolutely. "

The Powell led FCC, with the go-ahead from congress, is poised to unleash sweeping consolidation across the broadcast and telecommunications sectors. He claims that the current rules must be radically re-evaluated and any restrictions on cross-ownership of media properties must be justified by rigorous, scientific evidence, Of course, the only rules that need this rigorous new standard of justification are the ones that the media giants don't like. Rules that public interest advocates are against are not going to be reviewed any time soon. Real scientific inquiry demands a thoughtful, balanced choice of subjects of inquiry- but under Powell, we get piles of junk science that "prove" that what is good for clear Channel is good for America" and dozens of rules that are crucial for preserving the integrity of our media system will be thrown aside .

Powell has publicly dismissed the FCC's historic mandate to evaluate the actions of corporations based on protecting public over private interests,. That standard, he said, "is about as empty a vessel as you can accord a regulatory agency." In speaking to Congress, he referred to corporations as "our clients." The current FCC majority fundamentally does not believe in the basic mandate of the agency.
 
 


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