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What we learned in Monterey

FCC localism inquiry met with cornucopia of critiques, reform ideas


The FCC interprets its "public service" programming guidelines broadly. Some stations claim "Kenny the Shark" is educational television, while critics disagree. (Image: discoverykids.com.)

Michael Powell, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, may not have deemed it worth his time to appear at the hearing on local content of the media he organized last Wednesday in Monterey. But attendees gained a greater appreciation of the issue of media ownership consolidation, and the value that owners place on local control.

The hundreds who gathered to hear three of five members of the FCC and a panel of speakers came away with information on recent media research, critiques and valuable reform ideas that shed light on the meaning of "localism":

RESEARCH

Media workers afraid: The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists commissioned a survey of 400 media workers, who expressed concern about deregulation. The group's national president, John P. Connolly, testified that eight out of 10 of print and broadcast news professionals surveyed anonymously said the most serious problem facing the industry was "too much emphasis on the bottom line." Large majorities also reported an over-reliance on ratings and circulation, loss of credibility, declining quality of local news coverage, incomplete reporting and errors, and too little focus on complex issues. Mr. Connolly said many respondents were fearful about disagreeing with the "deregulation orthodoxy" encouraged by the FCC. He said new technologies such as "voice tracking" in radio and "centralcasting" in television are allowing broadcasters to cut staff while deceiving audiences into thinking content is local.

Little local politics: A study by Martin Kaplan, an associate dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California, shows the paucity of local political coverage on TV stations across the country. On 122 TV stations in the last seven weeks of the 2002 campaign, only 44% of broadcasts surveyed contained any campaign coverage — mostly in the last two weeks. Including congressional races, only 15% of the reporting was on local contests. The research found that size of ownership group matters: Companies with the most stations tended to broadcast less local campaign news. Mr. Kaplan's research is "really damning" of the local media, said Jonathan Adelstein, an FCC commissioner in attendance.

FCC Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy said in Monterey that she felt she was doing the right thing last year when she voted to loosen ownership restrictions on broadcasters. (Photo by Michael Stoll.)

CRITIQUES

Entertainment as education: Many television and radio stations that claim they fulfill their congressionally mandated obligations to provide public service have long ignored that requirement, or interpreted it to include material of questionable public service value. These include public service announcements in the middle of the night and public-affairs programming at 5 a.m. on weekends. Patti Miller, director of the Children in the Media program at Children Now, a children's advocacy organization based in Oakland, prepared a statement that objected to current interpretations of "children's programming" that includes shows such as "Kenny the Shark," an ostensibly educational cartoon about a giant tiger shark who lives on land as a household pet.

Emergency response frustrated: Consolidation and rapid transfer of ownership in the media has made it harder for public safety managers to spread the word about emergencies. Harry B. Robbins Jr., emergency services manager for Monterey County, said more and more stations are becoming automated, using content taped elsewhere. That becomes a problem when the county needs to get emergency information out quickly — if no announcer is on duty at a station, urgent calls and faxes can go unheeded.

Toilet talk radio: Some of the largest media companies have allowed the broadcasting of material that is patently offensive, and might be classified by the FCC as profane. One woman from Monterey played a tape of from the "Mikey Show," in which host Mikey Esparza called someone who pretended to be a four-year-old girl and told a sexually explicit dirty joke about women on the air. Esparza also played a song that appeared to condone statutory rape. That song got him fired from KSJO-FM in San Jose, a Clear Channel station, but he was re-hired the following year, according to the San Jose Mercury News. Kathleen Abernathy, the FCC commissioner who chaired the hearing, promised to investigate.

¿Se habla español? Some Spanish-language broadcasters feel excluded from the discussion over how much media concentration is acceptable. Blanca Zarazúa, chairwoman of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Monterey County, urged the FCC's definition of "public interest" to include Spanish speakers, who have fewer choices when it comes to news and information. Consolidation affects language-minority communities more than the English-speaking majority. Delia Saldivar, regional manager of KHDC-Radio Bilingüe Inc, in Salinas, echoed those sentiments: "Media is turning into a money machine, instead of the people's voice."

Music manipulations: Dominant commercial radio station owners exclude some local musicians while rewarding others who agree not to appear on competitor stations. Those who do are shut out from future appearances by these "behind-the-scenes bullies," said Davey D, a KPFA-FM disk jockey and media activist.

Media workers, activists and concerned citizens traveled from as far away as Hawaii and Washington State to participate in the FCC hearings in Monterey July 21. (Photo by Michael Stoll.)

Public service or distraction? Several broadcasters offered, in addition to their donations of airtime to worthy charities, other good works such as blood drives and company-sponsored volunteerism as evidence that they were good for the community. Kathy Bisbee of Santa Cruz dismissed such efforts as "cause marketing," saying none of that should substitute for public-service programming.

REFORM IDEAS

Lax regulations: Mr. Kaplan's testimony, read by a colleague from the University of Southern California, protested that the public files broadcasters are expected to keep are useless. Since the FCC does not actively monitor these filings, stations feel they can include anything. He proposed the industry pay for this monitoring. He said the current requirement for license renewal — little more than mailing a postcard — was "a joke."

Scrutinizing licenses: Michael Copps, another FCC commissioner, said he wants to reinvigorate the public-input process when station licenses come up for renewal every eight years. In California, license renewals will begin in 2005 for radio and 2006 for television. That effort comes on the heels of a federal appeals court ruling in June that overturned the FCC majority's 3-2 decision last year to allow further ownership consolidation.

Local control: Locally owned and operated broadcasts stations are in a fight with the networks over the ability of the stations to pre-empt national programming. The Network Affiliated Stations Alliance has submitted a petition to the FCC for more room in their contracts to deem national programs "unsuitable" or "unsatisfactory" for their local audiences. One member of the Monterey panel, Harry J. Pappas, president and CEO of Pappas Telecasting in Visalia, added that local ownership and local control are the best defenses against profanity.

Volunteering for politics: Mr. Kaplan of USC wrote in his testimony that broadcast companies including Hearst-Argyle, Belo, New York Times, Scripps, and Granite have pledged to provide airtime for candidates in the fall campaign. In response to Mr. Kaplan's statement that stations across the country were falling far short of five minutes of candidate-centered discourse per night in the month before an election, a recommendation of the Gore Commission in 1998, Mr. Pappas replied that he would honor that goal.

Tax the spectrum: How to pay for regulation monitoring and public-access proposals? Some members of the audience supported the idea of taxation or fees to be levied on stations in exchange for their licenses.

Attacking oligopolies: Some speakers, reflecting on the differences in local content between stations that are owned by local and out-of-town companies, proposed a rollback of media ownership allowances. Some said 25 stations are enough. Others said one is all that should be allowed. For comparison, Clear Channel Communications Inc. owns more than 1,200 radio stations. Michael Zwerling, owner of KSCO-AM in Santa Cruz, recommended the FCC roll back to the much stricter ownership requirements of 1991 and require conglomerates to divest themselves of radio stations.

Making space for newcomers: Sean McLaughlin, president and CEO of Akaku: Maui Community Television in Hawaii, recommended the FCC mandate that stations set aside some of the extra bandwidth they now control to public-access broadcasting as part of the conversion of broadcasters to digital technology. "We need some electronic green space in the strip mall of commercial media," he said. Mr. McLaughlin also endorsed reforms that would cede more control over license renewals to local governments. The inability for new owners to enter the market for "full-service" broad-area television stations, even during the digital conversion, has resulted in a "lack of fresh blood" in the industry, said Michael Cousins, a communications attorney in Oakland.

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