Main Studio Debate Gets Heated

WASHINGTON—When it comes to the impact that the removal of the main studio rule could have on the broadcast industry, comments run the gamut.

In the Federal Communications Commission’s ECFS comment database, words like “archaic,” “counterproductive” and “outdated” are being used to support elimination of the rule — as are comments like “essential,” “necessarily” and “I want my station to stay local.”

On May 18, the FCC released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that proposes to eliminate the requirement that each AM, FM and TV broadcast station maintain a main studio located near its community of license and that it be properly staffed.

“This is 2017. This is the electronic and digital era,” said Randal J. Miller, president of Kaskaskia Broadcasting and of Miller Communications, licensees of AM and FM stations and translators across Illinois.

“It is rare that a person comes to any of our buildings seeking information on our stations or submitting information to air,” Miller said in the first comments filed in ECFS on the issue. He called for elimination of the main studio rules for AM and FM broadcast radio stations, including the staffing and program origination requirements.

“Most, if not all, of that communication is by email, through our websites, or by phone,” he said.

For small-market broadcasters, the opportunity to eliminate costs for associated staffing and program origination capability requirements will enable those stations to allocate greater resources to programming, Miller said. “[This rule’s] time has definitely passed,” he said.

Others agreed. These rules constitute an unnecessary regulatory burden in the context of today’s connected community, said Dennis Jackson, owner of stations WCLX(FM), WPUT(FM), WQQQ(FM) and WRIP(FM), licensed to towns in New York and Connecticut..

These rules are ripe for elimination assuming stations meet two fundamental requirements, he said: that the station’s public file is posted online, and the station maintains a toll-free number in its community of license to allow the public to reach station personnel.

The same sentiment was expressed by Great Plains Media, who said in a comment filing that the main studio and staffing rules are outdated, anachronistic and a considerable unnecessary economic burden.

The cost to maintain main studio staffing and toll-free access phone lines for KMXN(FM) in Osage City, Kansas, amounts to some $5,000 per year, while the in-person requests to view the public file or other operational information for those five years totals exactly zero, said Gary C. Liebling, chief operator for the station, in comments with the FCC.

“For small-market broadcasters, it is a considerable financial hardship to maintain the existing required main studio and support personnel,” he said.

Others were not so sanguine about scrapping the rule.

Aurora Broadcasting said it strongly opposes a blanket repeal of the main studio rule. The reason the licensee gave was the same reason that spurred FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn to express concerns about a blanket repeal: the importance of a local connection.

“While technology has made some aspects of program creation more easily centralized, maintaining local presence is essential to keeping local radio relevant amongst increasing competition,” said Aurora Broadcasting President Matthew Butler, which is licensee of WMSM(AM).

Contrary to what some believe, Butler said, the removal of main studios will not increase investment in or renew focus on local programming concerns. Rather, the removal of a local presence will further disconnect radio stations from their communities of license.

“It has already been seen as a result of consolidation that smaller stations have been moved into group studios and focused on more lucrative metropolitan areas,” he said.

In smaller markets, the local studio performs a valuable function by allowing for interaction with the public and increased coverage of local issues — with community members routinely bringing in public service and news items, being interviewed on-air and interacting with sales and production departments, he said.

The costs of maintaining a local presence are not only reasonable, but also beneficial to broadcaster's relationship to their communities and broadcast radio as a local medium, Butler said. “In fact, our local presence ensures we stand apart from our digital competitors and reminds our audiences and advertisers daily that we view our license as a public interest and trust.”

Comments on the issue are being accepted in the ECFS database using MB Docket No. 17-106.

This story originally appeared on TVT's sister publication Radio World

Susan Ashworth

Susan Ashworth is the former editor of TV Technology. In addition to her work covering the broadcast television industry, she has served as editor of two housing finance magazines and written about topics as varied as education, radio, chess, music and sports. Outside of her life as a writer, she recently served as president of a local nonprofit organization supporting girls in baseball.