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Big changes and a big-mouthed visitor 

Waiting for the gavel to drop

We're on tenterhooks as the U.S. Supreme Court considers the case of MGM v. Grokster, a case that will have huge ramifications for the future of copyright law and technological innovation. The case was argued last Tuesday before the court, and the scene outside the court building Monday night was like a campout for concert tickets, Wired News' Katie Dean reported, as students waited in line for tickets to hear the arguments.

Grokster is a file-sharing network much like the original Napster. MGM sued Grokster, charging that the company is liable for the copyright infringement committed by its users. In 2003, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found in Grokster's favor, saying the technology has plenty of uses that aren't illegal, and that censoring the device based on the potential for illegal use would stifle innovation and set an absurd precedent--where would it stop? What about iPods?

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has a rather amusing list of "Endangered Gizmos" at their Web site, , which includes the now "extinct" Advanced eBook Processor, a device invented by a Russian programmer that can decrypt Adobe e-Books, and the once threatened but now "saved" universal garage door opener. The foundation has been active in support of Grokster, and reports from the trial sounded optimistic. "The justices asked all the right questions," said the foundation's Senior Staff Attorney Fred von Lohmann in a statement published on the site. "They were clearly worried about how this ruling would affect the future of technological invention. As Justice David Souter said, we shouldn't hang a sword of Damocles over the heads of America's innovators.'"

A decision isn't expected until late June or early July. Al Franken is coming On Wednesday, April 13, Al Franken will broadcast his Air America radio show live from the 375-seat Carolina Union auditorium at UNC-Chapel Hill. WCHL 1360 AM, the news and talk station based in Chapel Hill, has been broadcasting Air America shows almost since the progressive network launched last spring. Station manager Christy Dixon says the station has been working hard to bring Franken and his co-host Katherine Lanpher to town as part of their national tour. "We're so excited," she says. "The goal was always to do it on campus." Franken won't be here long, but he will have time for a book signing after the show, which airs from noon to 3 p.m. on weekdays.

A documentary called Left of the Dial chronicling the first troubled months of Air America's existence will be screened at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham and on HBO. I warn you, it's painful.

Rumors have circulated for months that WCHL owner Jim Heavner has been looking for a buyer for the station. Not true, he says. "WCHL is not for sale. Period." In fact, the license to the station was transferred last summer, the last stage in a deal to buy the station back from regional radio magnate Don Curtis. Heavner had sold the station to Curtis Media years prior and decided to buy it back after realizing that the community needed a local, independent voice, he says.

WCHL broadcasts local news, commentary and live coverage of political events as well as several Air America programs. "I don't mind saying to anyone that I am committed to having this station be locally owned as long as I have anything to say about it," Heavner says.

If anyone is in a position to take over down the line, it would be new general manager Walter Sturdivant, a former UNC football player with 20 years experience in radio. "That would warm my heart," Heavner says, "but we don't have an arrangement or a plan."

Besides, why sell when the Air America format has worked out "very well" for WCHL, Heavner says, increasing both audience and advertiser interest. "It's going gangbusters," he says. Here's to local progressive radio. New sheriff of the airwaves A local boy is the new head of the Federal Communications Commission. North Carolina native Kevin J. Martin, a grad of UNC-CH and Duke, was appointed chairman last month by President Bush, following in the footsteps of the not-very-popular Michael Powell. He shares with Powell a desire to deregulate media ownership and a preoccupation with indecency. On the latter score, Martin makes Powell look like a softy. He has often complained that indecency fines are too low.

Industry groups and the Parents Television Council (who brought us Nipplegate) are thrilled. Some consumer groups are looking on the bright side, saying Martin has a reputation for being pragmatic, independent and open minded.

For a deeper take, I looked at a study by the Benton Foundation, a public interest group that advocates for diverse and locally responsive media ( Analyzing votes, statements, testimony and proposals, Benton found Martin's tenure to be a mixed bag. On the ownership issue, Martin's statements are troubling: Not only did he vote to raise ownership limits, he urged the elimination of the ban on a single company owning both a broadcast outlet and a major newspaper in the same market; the study predicts he's likely to make that issue a priority now that he's in charge. He also praised the new ownership rules as "simple" and "clear"--the same rules a judge later overturned, finding them to be "irrational" and "inconsistent." His indecency fight has come up with some reasonable solutions, however: He affirms the right of local broadcasters to reject programming they find inappropriate (Fox 50's refusal to air Temptation Island is case in point). He urges broadcasters to bring back the concept of a family hour, and he wants to limit the type and amount of advertising on "educational" children's programming.

As for Martin's relationship to the White House, well, his independent streak isn't likely to show up there. Martin was deputy general counsel to the Bush-Cheney campaign and traveled to Florida for the ballot counting smackdown. He then became a principal technology and telecommunications advisor to the Bush-Cheney transition team, and has been on the FCC since 2001.

Powell's tenure at the FCC was almost completely ineffective, thanks in part to strong protest over changes to the ownership rules. So the commission is likely to revisit a lot of familiar issues in the coming months: how many media outlets a company can own, what constitutes indecency on the airwaves, how much competition there should be in local telephone service.

You can reach Chairman Martin at or toll-free at 1-888-CALL-FCC. Make sure to keep in touch and let him know how you feel about things--let's not let the Parents Television Council have all the fun writing letters.

  • Waiting for the gavel to drop


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