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The Good FCC

On Tuesday, the Federal Communications Commission, by a bare majority, voted to lift its over three decade old prohibition against an entity owning a newspaper and a television station in the same market. Most FCC watchers will now shift their visors to Congress and the circuit courts, where media reform activists will doubtless turn in a bid to reverse this ruling.

But the agency also made four important decisions this month and last that deserve a second glance, not only because they could have an impact on broadcasting, but because they illustrate the extent to which the Commission can promote measures that clearly serve the public interest—when it wants to.

Low Power FM

When the FCC created its Low Power FM (LPFM) service in the 1990s, it ruled that these new, locally based non-profit frequencies did not have to protect so-called “third adjacent” full power FM stations. The National Association of Broadcasters moved almost instantly to quash the provision, using its enormous influence to get Congress to pass the “Radio Broadcast Protection Act,” which restored the third adjacent rule.

This meant that a full power FM station at 94.1 megahertz could demand that no LPFM station be built anywhere from 93.5 to 94.7 on the dial. A half dozen big FM stations on the lower end of the dial could thus create a prohibitively large no-fly zone for any prospective non-profit broadcaster.

But the FCC’s plucky Media Bureau commissioned a study to test the NAB’s assertions, and the engineering firm found that the agency’s original ruling was solid.

“Based on the measurements and analysis reported herein, existing third-adjacent channel distance restrictions should be waived to allow LPFM operation at locations that meet all other FCC requirements,” the MITRE Corporation’s engineers concluded in 2003.

It took a while, but on November 27th, the FCC formally recommended that Congress remove the requirement that LPFM stations protect full power stations operating on third adjacent channels. The Commission’s Order also tightened up rules for LPFM that will make sure that these stations keep their broadcasting local and non-repetitious.

And only one LPFM to a non-profit customer, the FCC warned. No more. That move means that the megachurches can’t crowd out the rest of us.

Diversification of broadcast ownership

Women and minorities own a pathetically small percentage of radio and television stations in the United States. Last year Howard University’s Carolyn M. Byerly looked at FCC ownership data circa 2005 and found that of 12,844 radio and TV stations that filed documentation with the FCC in 2005, minorities owned 3.6% and women owned 3.4% of these frequencies.

On the same day that it relaxed its newspaper/TV ownership limits, the FCC passed a series of reforms that will make it easier for women and minorities to buy and retain broadcast media. The provisions smooth the way for financially distressed stations to sell their signal to a female or minority buyer. They allow minority/women owners more time for construction permits.

The provisions make it easier for big media companies to sell off pieces of “grandfathered” combinations of radio, TV stations, and newspapers to minority/women bidders. And they initiate an annual “access to capital” conference to match minority media buyers with media investors.

It’s a hodge podge of provisions that won’t change anything overnight, but a “first step,” as FCC Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate called it.

“Unfortunately, a step that has already taken this Commission too long,” she added, “and therefore we need to move forward expeditiously—beginning today.”

Cable subscriber caps

The FCC also approved an Order on December 18th that sets at 30 percent the number of subscribers a cable company can serve.

“In so doing, we ensure that a single operator cannot unduly limit the viability of a new independent network in its formative years,” declared FCC Chair Kevin Martin in a comment that does not corroborate his public image as the subservient poodle of big media.

Indeed, Martin found his allies on this issue not with his fellow Republicans, but with his traditional adversaries: Democrats Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein.

Both Republicans dissented on this decision, and the cable industry is furious at the move. While Martin’s reform does not force any company to sell off properties, the Order limits the reach of Comcast, which now controls around 27 percent of pay television subscriber receipts. That is, if the decision survives a court challenge.


Like their decisions on media diversity, the FCC’s December 18th ruling on localism will not shake the media landscape, but it could knock it about in some potentially interesting ways.

Among other suggestions, the Order asks for public comment on its conclusion that “licensees should establish permanent advisory boards (including representatives of underserved community segments) in each station community of license with which to consult periodically on community needs and issues.” The document also says that the FCC should adopt guidelines “that will ensure that all broadcasters provide some locally-oriented programming.”

At present, the only broadcast stations that must create community advisory boards are those that receive money from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). This is an appropriate requirement. But it also turns CPB stations into conduits for public anger with all of media. It’s about time that commercial stations had to take some of that heat.

Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein reacted with cynicism to this Order.

“If history is any guide, the odds are that the Commission will either neglect to finalize these proposals,” Adelstein said in his partial concurrence to the decision, “or when it comes time to finalize them, they may be so diluted as to render them meaningless.”

All the more reason why the public should tell the FCC that it takes them seriously. The FCC should not only require license holders to create advisory boards, it should require those boards to hold at least two annual public meetings that are announced by the station over-the-air, during the day.

The Commission should also make stations submit accurate summaries of those meetings, with explanations of how the broadcaster will implement the suggestions received.

If we want the Federal Communications Commission to serve the public interest, we have make visible what the agency does right, as well as what it does wrong. We have to reinforce the Commission’s promises to do good at least as much as we raise the alarm against the its efforts to reward influence and power.

We may be confronted by a very different FCC relatively soon. So let’s think positively. They say that it boosts your health.

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