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Localism Dissected at FCC Hearing, Complete With Protests

From Radio World’s “The Leslie Report”

The drama ensued.

It was quite the localism hearing yesterday at the FCC, which I attended. Much of what was happening in the room was like kabuki theater.

The commissioners got a big dose of “we don’t like big media” from the public, from the protestors and from official speakers testifying.

The most colorful speakers were “the FCC cheerleaders” who looked like the Prometheus Radio Project members to me, chanting “2–4–6–8. Who do we consolidate!” The woman who led this cheer told the commissioners the demonstration would have been “way better” with pom poms, but the security guards wouldn’t let her bring those into the room.

A protestor dressed in a French maid outfit said she was representing a “corporate media whore.” She began by taking off her jacket; at that point commission staffers running the meeting were worried about what else she might remove.

The levity was refreshing after sitting through hours of sobering testimony about media ownership.

At the start of the hearing, it was clear the Democratic commissioners are still smarting at the short hearing notice and reports the chairman wants to complete the media ownership proceeding with a vote by year-end. They’re also not pleased at the chairman’s decision to fold in localism with the larger media ownership proceedings.

That tension spilled out a little when Commissioner Adelstein said he hadn’t been able to meet with the FCC’s localism task force and he wanted to remind everyone that “the staff works for the commission, not just the chairman.”

Chairman Martin disputed Adelstein’s version, saying new people are now in charge of that task force from when it was started under previous Chairman Powell and that Adelstein had asked to meet with the old staff. Martin suggested Adelstein get with both old and new staff for that project for a complete update.

Martin began reciting all the things he had proposed a year ago under the localism umbrella to improve minority and other new entrant access to media ownership, including reviving a version of the minority tax certificate program, eliminating or relaxing rules for LPFMs to increase their numbers and allowing AMs to operate on FM translators.

At this point, it became hard to hear; one of the protestors was arguing with the guards over being removed from the room and a crowd formed around them behind me. They eventually let her, and the other protestors, back in their seats.

What They Said
Getting into the testimony at the FCC hearing, NAB Executive Vice President for Television Marcellus Alexander, said “We have the most vibrant broadcasting system in the world,” and pumped his fist for emphasis. He discussed how radio and TV stations in San Diego and Los Angeles served their communities during the California wildfires and played a tape from KABC(TV), Los Angeles.

XM host and former “Morning Edition” talent Bob Edwards testified for AFTRA, which he said represents more broadcasters than any other union.

“The major radio conglomerates argue that ownership caps should be lifted” to ease the threat from satellite radio. “This ignores the strength of radio is that it’s local.”

Capital Broadcasting President/CEO Jim Goodman said the FCC should wait until the digital transition is over before starting to change ownership rules; and when it does focus on the rules, to look at them as a whole, rather than piecemeal, reminding commissioners that many owners have both radio and TV in their portfolio.

Leadership Conference on Civil Rights President/CEO Wade Henderson said ownership gets to the heart of how media covers issues and what topics are chosen.

“The battle over who controls media is a battle civil rights media has fought for decades,” he said. If the images of dogs and water hoses leashed on protestors hadn’t been aired on TV years ago, civil rights gains would not have occurred, he said.

Rainbow PUSH Coalition President/Founder Rev. Jesse Jackson said, “For too long, media policies have been made behind closed doors. It’s time to democratize the way the FCC operates.”

In the city of Washington, people of color make up more than 70 percent of the population, yet only one TV station is minority owned, Jackson said. At this point the protestors cried, “Shameful!” [According to the Census Bureau, as of the 2005 census update, 62.69% of the population of the District of Columbia does not identify as white; however, Jackson’s point remains. Eleven full-power TV stations operate in the D.C. market.]

He then turned his comments to the potential satellite radio merger and said the deal is not in the public interest. A protestor behind him held up a sign that read: “Where are the women on this panel?”

George Washington University Professor Christopher Sterling said there’s plenty of local outlets, but too few voices and the plethora of opinions out there today provides little real diversity of programming. “Too often, new entrants are cut off at the knees by existing broadcasters, including public radio, complaining about interference.” I took that as a reference to NPR and NAB on the question of whether it’s wise to drop third-adjacent channel protection in a heavily populated market to allow new LPFMs on the air.

What’s Next?
During a break I asked the chairman if he was still committed to trying to get a vote on media ownership by the last public meeting in December; he had no comment.

At the end of the hearing several reporters asked that question in various forms and mentioned the protest of several members of Congress, which we reported last week. Martin said media ownership is an emotional issue and anytime the commission does anything it runs the risk of a backlash from Congress. He still had no comment on the timing except to say he’s still discussing the topic with the other commissioners.

Democratic Commissioners Copps and Adelstein told reporters afterwards the turnout was low compared to other localism hearings and cited short notice for that.

Based on what they heard yesterday, Adelstein said, “It sounds from the answers we got there’s a lot of work to do.”