Overseeing undersight of the mass
By Jim Gordon
In 1975, there were 952 television stations in the United States, owned by 543 entities. By the year 2000, after a sweeping deregulation in 1996 that was supposed to promote competition, the number of TV stations had risen to 1,678, but the number of owners had shrunk to 360.
Now, in another of a series of issues that seem to go relatively unnoticed in wartime — including the proposed diminishment of veterans benefits and the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision that upheld state laws against late-term abortions — the Federal Communications Commission, under chairman Michael Powell, son of Secretary of State Colin Powell, is considering easing rules that restrict media companies from owning overlapping outlets in markets across the country. If implemented, the new ballgame would mean that a company could own both a newspaper and television station in the same city (as Rupert Murdoch already does, by special waiver, own both the New York Post and Fox-5 television in the city); end the rule that prevents one television network from merging with another; remove the cap that limits the number of radio stations a single owner may control in a radio market (the official limit now stands at eight), and end regulations that prevent one company from owning broadcast outlets that reach more than 35 percent of the population.
The proposal has generated comment from The New York Times Company, CBS-Viacom and ABC-Disney, FOX and General Electric, which owns NBC and co-owns MSNBC with Microsoft, and at the same time has prompted the ire of consumer and civil rights organizations and some members of Congress, including 22nd District Democrat Maurice Hinchey.
“It is an incredibly dangerous situation,” said Hinchey. “If this goes through, it is the beginning of the destruction of democracy. If we do not stop this from happening we are going to be passing on to our children and grandchildren a much different place than we inherited from our parents and grandparents.”
FCC commissioner Michael Copps, one of two Democratic appointees opposing the rule changes and attempting to publicize the issue, said, “The question here is whether we are going to eliminate all these rules, keep them as they are, or significantly loosen them. And the betting is, [Powell] will propose to significantly loosen them.” Copps continued, “This is such an important proceeding because it affects every American. It will impact the type of entertainment they are going to hear and see and affect the extent of democratic dialogue we are going to have as a country.”
The proposed rule changes would effectively remove controls that have governed mass media in America for decades, rules that were originally designed to ensure that a diverse array of viewpoints has access to airwaves and other mass media.
As chairman, Powell is empowered to simply issue new regulations that must be voted on by the five-member FCC board. Messages left with Powell’s executive assistant seeking comment on the proposals were not answered by press time.
In a speech delivered to the Media Institute in Washington D.C. March 27, Powell gave reasons for the proposed revisions.
“Changes in the media landscape rendered many of the premises for regulation and the alleged dangers of further consolidation substantially less obvious or certain,” said Powell. “The continuing proliferation of more outlets and new media platforms was accompanied by a virtual explosion of diverse and varied content.”
And he said that the proposed rule changes allowing for greater media holdings could serve the public interest, for example, by helping ensure that “free T.V.” as opposed to cable television, remains a viable business.
“While many view big as always antithetical to the public interest, scale and efficiency are becoming more vital to delivering quality news and public affairs,” said Powell
Powell argues that it is not the government’s role to regulate media. “Our founding fathers said little about commercial owners of news and print, but they reserved the top spot on the bill of rights to condemn the government from foisting its values, preferences, viewpoints or tastes on a free people. This is where the gravest constitutional danger lies,” he said.
The political fray
The affects of the rule changes would perhaps advance the state of affairs that has taken place since the passage of the Federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 that deregulated the industry in terms of the number of media outlets a company could own. This has led to a swift consolidation of mass media in America, illustrated best by the rise of Clear Channel Media, an empire with 1,225 stations, including several in the Hudson Valley, and a weekly radio audience of over 104 million people nationally.
The company has grown since 1995 from a regional entity operating about 40 radio stations to a nationwide conglomerate of radio stations, billboards, music venues and talent agents. With its enormous clout, Clear Channel has entered the political fray, and its stations have sponsored rallies in Atlanta, Cincinnati and elsewhere supporting the Iraqi war. Clear Channel’s company vice chairman, Thomas Hicks, is apparently a close friend and former business partner of President Bush.
“What looks like Clear Channel support for rallying this war is a very strong argument for diversifying control of the media. They have shown they are going to use that platform for a very explicit political agenda,” said Janine Jackson, a media analyst with the group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). “They are pro-war rallies, are what they are. It makes the case that, obviously, we don’t want a single company to have a virtual monopoly over the airwaves.”
Albany based public radio station WAMC has a listing of receiver sites that compares to the corporate chains, but the non-profit public radio station known as Northeast Public Radio cannot compete with the clout of Clear Channel, said executive director Dr. Alan Chartock. He said corporations already have too much influence in the American media and are trying to further consolidate corporate ownership of the airwaves.
“They make the argument, like all the Bushies, they argue there will be more choices with fewer choices,” said Chartock, chuckling. “But we already know what is happening with consolidation. Along with Clear Channel, there are about five major players and in no time, that will be down to about three, or as they say in Monopoly at the end of the game, one.”
Clear Channel is headquartered in Austin, Texas. A call to the press contact phone number on the Clear Channel Communications web site was met with the news the woman listed no longer worked there, and Barbara Featherston would handle the call. She told Woodstock Times she needed to investigate how to handle a media call, and put the call on hold. While on hold, Clear Channel broadcast a soothing message stream, “Clear Channel, giving a voice to caring and making the world a whole lot smaller.”
This was followed by patriotic music and a message extolling “Heroes…”
The message was interrupted by Featherston who said her boss, in Houston, would have someone call back. The following day a representative who refused to provide her name, but said she was from Brainerd Communications, a public relations firm, called to say that no one from Clear Channel would be available to discuss the matter.
On February 3, Hinchey, along with Congressman Bernie Sanders of Vermont and others, sent a letter to the head of the FCC: “The fundamental principal of free speech and the crucial role played by the media in a free democracy are in serious jeopardy if the FCC moves forward with this process. Easing ownership rules seems to be far more skewed toward ensuring the continued profitability of a handful of highly influential corporations than it is with the public interest,” reads the letter in part.
“The ability to communicate to a mass audience we all take for granted, but it’s a new phenomenon within the history of civilization. And in the 1930s, we saw how it was used for evil purposes in Europe with the propaganda operations of fascism,” said Hinchey. “So in the 1940s, we put into place a regulatory regime designed to be democratic, small “d”; democratic in the sense that we could try to insure diversity of opinion and a large number of voices in the media. The idea being there should be a diversity of voices; one person or one group shouldn’t control media.”
Others fear that there is a media blackout on the issue. The proceeding has been going on officially since last September and Copps said, “I have contacted the news bureaus of the three major networks and told them it was important and they ought to be covering it. But I haven’t seen them do anything about it.”
“If such sweeping changes in the rules governing any other industry were being considered, of course it would be major news,” said Jackson. “But part of this scandal is that broadcast outlets which have so much to gain have not been covering it as a story at all. They are very much involved in the issue, but are not covering it for the public.”
The networks are certainly aware of the issue. The bid to end the 35 percent rule stems from a lawsuit originated by FOX and NBC, among others.
Other official comments received by the FCC regarding the rules, according to Jeffrey Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy, include CBS seeking to eliminate the cap on the number of television stations a company can own nationally. Disney-ABC seeks elimination of all existing FCC rules on broadcast ownership.
The public interest groups — including Consumers Union, Consumer Federation of America, Media Access Project, Center for Digital Democracy, and the Civil Rights Forum — recently filed a joint comment with the FCC in support of maintaining ownership restrictions. The groups claim that about 15 percent of broadcast television outlets are monopolies, 25 percent are duopolies, and 50 percent are tight oligopolies.
“It may be hard to picture, but it is entirely possible for there to be even less diversity in American media then there is now,” said Jackson of FAIR. She pointed out that many American cities and towns now have only one daily newspaper and perhaps one television station. “Now, imagine if the one paper and one television station share an owner. Imagine if you really were a one-owner town.”
Not liberal vs. conservative
Copps, the FCC commissioner opposing the rule changes, said he is heartened by the resistance to Powell’s proposals, observing that it seems to have slowed the rush to change the rules. He noted a bi-partisan display of concern that includes Republicans such as Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson and Arizona Senator John McCain, as well as liberal Democrats like Hinchey and Wisconsin Senator Russell Feingold.
“This is not a Republican-Democratic issue, it is not even a liberal-conservative issue,” said Copps in a phone interview from his office in Washington, D.C. “I always suspected that once the American people, who actually own these airwaves, once the people found out this was on the docket, they would be concerned. But the response is even more than I anticipated and a lot more than many people in this town anticipated.”
That does not mean the FCC is opening up the process. There has been only one public hearing on the proposed changes and it took place in Richmond, Virginia, about an hour outside of Washington, D.C. Despite requests for more public input, no other hearings were held. The official comment period closed January 30. Copps said that when he has attempted to convene meetings at sites dispersed around the country, Powell has cut off his funding.
That does not surprise Jackson, who pointed out that the FCC never officially announced it was considering the sweeping rule changes being discussed. “They said they posted an announcement on their web site,” said Jackson, “that was their public notice.” Citizens can still get involved most effectively and directly, she said, by holding media outlets accountable for their failure to publicize the issue.
Hinchey reiterated his contention that no issue is more important to the country than proper oversight of mass media. His conviction was reinforced, he said, by poll results showing that over 40 percent of Americans blame Saddam Hussein for the attack on the World Trade Centers, even though the Iraqi dictator has not been linked in any way to the 9/11 attacks.
“40 percent of the people have been deceived into thinking something is true when it is absolutely false,” said Hinchey. “That is the most recent example of why this is critically important to the future of the country.”++
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Locally owned radio stations let music guide the program
Compare a company that owns 1,225 radio stations nationally and another radio station that is individually owned and operated, without connection to any chain of corporate financing and centralized control. Guess which radio station uses a more extensive play list to program music for its listeners? Compare a radio station with ties to a pizza parlor across the street, to stations whose headquarters are a thousand miles away. Guess which one works harder to promote community?
“We have a music library of 10,000 songs, versus Clear Channel with 400 songs. We play everything from the Beatles to Nora Jones, 30 years of rock history versus a ten-year time frame,” said Gary Chetkoff, president of Woodstock Broadcasting Company, otherwise known as radio station WDST. Begun in 1980 as an independent station, the station changed hands several times over the years, but still broadcasts at 100.1 FM, in Woodstock as well as 106.3 Poughkeepsie and 102.3 Newburgh
“The way Clear Channel is programmed, they are very structured and thematically programmed and going after a certain age group. We are going after an audience based on quality. We look at it as if we are a gourmet restaurant versus McDonalds,” said Chetkoff. “We’re in this for more then money. We have an ambition, we’re here, to be the last great radio station in the country.” He noted that AOL had selected WDST as one of only six stations nationally to be made available on line.
Competition from Clear Channel is no laughing matter. Between Clear Channel and Cumulus Inc. another corporate radio chain, “They own just about every radio station in the Hudson Valley,” said Chetkoff.
Clear Channel owns about a dozen radio stations in the Hudson Valley in AM and FM broadcasting, across the spectrum of radio waves and music types. Their stations include WGHQ, WBWZ (Z-93) WCTW (TheCat 98.5) and WRWD Country 107.3
Cumulus Media is the second largest radio chain nationally it owns 262 stations nationally, including WCZX 97.7 WPDH 101.5 FM and WEOK 1390 AM and WKNY-1490 AM in Kingston.
But WDST is not the only independent radio station in the Hudson Valley. WKZE, 98.1 FM in Sharon Connecticut, has about 80 percent of its listeners in the Hudson Valley, according to Hal Lefferts, the station’s music and program director. “There are pressures to go more and more into what has become that commercial waste land. And the balance we have to walk is to be music driven instead of commercial driven,” said Lefferts. The corporate radio stations “use music to serve the commercials, whereas we are here because we love the music. That’s the biggest difference.”
Community service is another area where local stations are different, said Chetkoff. “The first thing is, the fact we live here, we work here, our kids grow up here, obviously has a big impact. We do as much as possible we don’t do them to satisfy an FCC agenda, we do them because we care.”
WDST does events ranging from the Breast Cancer fundraisers to the Big Brothers-Big Sisters benefit concert held last weekend. And the station is always ready to listen to requests for publicizing events or help in fundraising or other assistance a radio station can offer a community. “We can respond quickly because we don’t have to go through a three tier process in considering something,” said Chetkoff.
Chetkoff said that to succeed as an independent, “You have to have a unique product that people want, or else there is no reason for people to buy [advertising time on] one radio station when they can buy eight at one time. You have to find your niche that makes you special, so that people want to advertise with you. If you don’t have unique programming and a good sales force, it would be very hard to compete against national chains.”
Lefferts said that local sponsorship helps keep a high quality of programming. “One wonderful thing we have with local sponsors is they are creative people. So we have freedom to play music others might not play, because they give us that freedom, even if they don’t agree with the message of the song. They don’t threaten to halt their advertising with us.”
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