Susan Tifft, a Duke professor of public policy, says, "The public has an overwhelming stake in these hearings because they actually own the airwaves. At least that is the way the 1934 Federal Communications Law was written. However, that key concept, in my opinion, has been chipped away at over the years so that the 'regulated'--the broadcasters--now seem to be the FCC's clients, not the public."
A 1996 law eliminated the limit on the number of radio stations a company could own nationwide and raise the number a company could own in any one city (or "market" as the industry thinks of it) from two to eight. The result has been a wave of consolidation, with a shrinking list of global media companies--Viacom, Clear Channel, Disney and AOL Time Warner to name, well, pretty much all of them--gobbling up small local stations and plugging them into computerized canned DJ feeds. In May, the commission will make its final decision whether to further relax ownership rules.
"What the commission is considering now," Tifft explains, "is modifying or in some cases lifting the controls on who can own what, and how many. Can a newspaper own a TV station in the same market? How many TV stations across the country can one company own? These may seem like prosaic questions, but think about it: What if one company owned access to 75 percent of the eyeballs in the U.S.? That's a lot of power in one commercial interest. Will the public be better served as a result? Several FCC commissions, including the chairman, clearly think so. This is a chance for the public to have its say about that."
The trend seems unstoppable, but some at the FCC are still putting up a fight. Commissioner Michael Copps holds fast to the notion that the commission's purpose is to preserve competition and diversity and protect consumers from monopolies that would control the public airwaves. Chairman Michael Powell (Colin's son) argues that the government agency should make it easier for media companies to do their business as they see fit, free of pesky antitrust laws. Much to Powell's annoyance, Copps has insisted that the FCC hold a set of public hearings to explore the consequences of that decision, and to invite people (other than lobbyists, that is) to comment. Duke's influential network of telecommunications law fellows and professors are to thank for bringing one of those three hearings to the Triangle.
Few people know about the FCC hearings--little wonder, since the news outlets owned by the corporate giants don't seem to think they're particularly newsworthy. A Feb. 27 hearing in Richmond, Va., drew fewer than 200 people, according to the Washington Post, and was covered with a brief deep inside in The News & Observer (owned by the McClatchy chain out of Sacramento, Calif.). But the crowd did include a group of media activists from Philadelphia whose community station, Radio Volta, exemplifies the kind of non-commercial radio that's seriously endangered in the current climate. A hearing this week at the University of Washington in Seattle is likely to draw more of a crowd.
Powell sniffs at the hearings, calling them a"19th-century whistle-stop tour." But Philip Meyer, the Knight Chair in Journalism at UNC, says they're important. "The public should be interested because the traditional goals of providing independence, localism and diversity for the media are threatened if one big company owns everything." Meyer says radio is the best example of the problem with consolidation. He points to the recent Brent Staples article in The New York Times on the lack of anti-war protest songs: With Arbitron ratings and focus groups generating computerized playlists, no corporate-owned station is going to take a chance on passionate political music that could alienate its advertisers. "That means diversity is shot already," Meyer says.
"There's so much money to be made by consolidation that the pressure is going to be intense to let big media companies own whatever they want. And I don't think the opposition is that well funded. It might be a lost cause," Meyer adds, "but that doesn't mean it's not worth fighting for."
The Duke hearing is scheduled for Monday, March 31, from noon to 5 p.m. in Room 3037 of the law school. It's free and open to the public, and there are likely to be some important decision-makers on hand, including Congressman David Price. A spokesperson for the law school says the room seats 130 people, and they plan to have overflow seating with a live video feed, in case the crowd spills over. Here's hoping it does.