Resistance Rises for FCC Localism Proposal

The most recent wave of feedback on the FCC’s proposed localism rules is heavily negative. Among more than 11,400 comments on the five-year-old docket, the preponderance of newer ones oppose new requirements.

“I stand opposed to 07-218 as I feel it will bureaucratically usher in the Fairness Doctrine,” wrote Shaun Waymire of Alexandria, Va., referring to the equal-air-time law struck down in the mid-’80s.

Waymire’s position was reflected in one filing after another from individuals concerned about the impact on religious broadcasting.

“To require a broadcaster to include opposing comments is a free speech violation,” wrote Kathy Knock of Salem, Ore. “You would not require the author of a book to provide a chapter to his opponents. The FCC is overstepping its authority. Please do not waste taxpayer dollars with this endeavor.”

Sharon Konnick of Scranton, Pa. wrote that the proposed rules would force religious broadcasters to provide airtime for opposing viewpoints, a la the Fairness Doctrine. She also mentioned a proposed ban on remote automation.

“The First Amendment prohibits any government agency, including the FCC, from dictating what viewpoints a broadcaster, and especially a religious broadcaster, must present,” she wrote. “Further, requiring staff presence at all times that the station is on the air and restricting main studio location choices would raise costs to the point of creating an undue burden and force service cutbacks contrary to the public interest.”

Much of the opposition to the remote operation ban appeared to come from fans of K-LOVE, a contemporary Christian radio station based in Winchester, Ore., that serves other markets through translators.

The commission late last year set about reforming the way broadcasters have to serve their communities of license. The proposed localism rules would require TV and radio stations to set up community advisory boards to offer guidance on programming. They would also have to pony up proof of local programming to get licenses renewed. A separate action required stations to file quarterly reports with the FCC detailing types and frequency of public-interest programming. The order required the reports be posted on station Web sites and the locations announced on the air twice a day.

Both localism items passed the commission, but not without some squawking. The two Democrats, Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, have been adamant about tightening public interest obligations as fewer corporations own more media outlets. Both supported the proposed changes, but also called for more details.

Robert McDowell, the most independent Republican on the commission, expressed reservations when the localism items passed the commission last December with the help of his own vote. He dissented in part on the quarterly reports and the community boards, and again took a swipe at those topics during a recent speech in Washington. A true deregulatory Republican, McDowell speculated about tightening regs on TV stations in financial straits.

“Why are we considering placing these proverbial albatrosses around the necks of traditional media precisely at this “tipping point” in history when they can least afford a regulatory disadvantage vis-à-vis unregulated platforms like the Internet?” he said at the Quello Communications Law and Policy Symposium April 23.

The general noise level over the localism docket increased this week because the first round of feedback was due April 28.

A team of lawyers from the National Association of Broadcasters compiled a 256-page doozey for the commission’s pleasure. The broadcast lobby thankfully boiled it down in a press release:

“NAB respectfully disagrees with the statements in the localism report suggesting that radio and television broadcasters are out of touch with their communities and are failing to provide sufficient community-responsive programming,” the release said. “In sum, instead of achieving the commission’s stated goal of promoting closer contact between broadcasters and their communities, the proposed rule changes will, in many cases, produce the opposite effect, resulting in a broadcasting industry less able to serve the public interest. Especially in light of broadcasters’ and other outlets’ increasing service to local markets made possible by technological developments, NAB urges the FCC not to return to a regulatory regime from the analog era that would harm rather than help promote our common goal of providing service to our local communities.”

Reply comments are due June 11.