The Radio Fight for America’s Soul: ‘NAB Protesters say national media chains don’t serve the needs of local communities’

“Whose radio? Our radio!” the crowd chanted outside the Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco a week ago. Inside, convention-goers rolled their eyes as staffers and police stood guard around four young activists who had locked themselves together with bike locks. Someone asked what all the fuss was about; another onlooker responded: “I think it’s that Gore-Bush thing.” Behind us all, the “Radio Station of the Future” exhibit blasted Led Zepplin’s “Stairway to Heaven.”

“Whose radio? Our radio!” the crowd chanted outside the Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco a week ago. Inside, convention-goers rolled their eyes as staffers and police stood guard around four young activists who had locked themselves together with bike locks. Someone asked what all the fuss was about; another onlooker responded: “I think it’s that Gore-Bush thing.” Behind us all, the “Radio Station of the Future” exhibit blasted Led Zepplin’s “Stairway to Heaven.”

The fuss at the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) “Radio Show 2000” last week was about a conflict of interests. The non-profit National Association of Broadcasters is dedicated to “the interests of radio and television broadcasters in Washington and around the world,” according to NAB President Edward Fritts. But legally, broadcasters must serve “the public interest,” and the crowd at the door had come to say that these interests are not one and the same. “Independent, critical and genuinely representative media are crucial to a healthy democracy; without them, citizens lose the means to control and participate in the public debate that sets the nation’s political agenda,” reads an”>open letter to the NAB signed by activists, academics and organizations in support of the demonstrations.

All sides in the debates over control of the airwaves hold up the endangered heart of America for their cause. Though generally ignored by mass media and big politics, the battles are waged in epic tones. In challenges to ownership restrictions and content obligations, broadcasters’ rallying cry is “Freedom,” while reformers call for “Democracy.” In the fight to allow new short-range stations, the NAB warns of the danger micro-radio poses to America’s media, while advocates insist that the very fabric of community is at stake.

All sides appeal to the “soul of America,” because the core issue here is who has the right and the ability to determine the needs of the public. The NAB do indeed wield tremendous political influence, as documented in recent reports from the Center for Public Integrity, microbroadcaster Richard Edmundson and MediaChannel. Besides the money and lobbying forces available to any large industry, the Media have, in the words of former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt, “near ubiquitous, pervasive power to completely alter the beliefs of every American.”

“What the American people don’t know is, in fact, they own the airwaves,” insists Helen Grieco, president of the California National Association of Women, at a press conference outside the NAB convention.

With protests and direct actions, public education and government lobbying, coalitions are building to challenge the power of the NAB. (See links at bottom.)

The NAB was formed in 1922, the year of the first commercial broadcast in the United States. Twelve years later, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was created by the Communications Act of 1934 to regulate wire and radio communications in the public interest. But while the Act took great legal care to define its terms, spelling out the meanings of “broadcasting,” “radio station” and even “person” (which, we learn, “includes an individual, partnership, association, joint-stock company, trust, or corporation”) the definition of “public interest” was left to the beholder to interpret — and the FCC to regulate.

(Even the meaning of “public” may be disputed: During Thursday’s highly technical discussion on Radio Ownership, Roy Stewart, the head of the FCC Mass Media Bureau, defended agency policy, explaining that they must balance the interests of the broadcasters with the “public interest of advertisers.”)

The guest of honor at the convention’s “FCC Policymakers’ Breakfast,” FCC Commissioner Harold Furchgott-Roth, intoned the American values of “Freedom and Opportunity”.

Furchgott-Roth, often a dissenter from Commission decisions, warned radio station executives of the dangers that regulation-loving “defeatists” pose to “American victory.” As one such regulation lover, Andrea Buffa, Executive Director of Media-Alliance, seized the microphone and began, “I am here on behalf of the free-speech protesters. The airwaves are for the public, not for corporations —” until a large man in a sports coat muzzled her and carried her out.

(Diane Mermigas, Deals Page editor for the trade mag Electronic Media, offers her own nod to patriotism: Of course media companies employ all their political might to consolidate and fight to evade regulation, she writes: “That’s the American way. It’s what makes free enterprise the engine for creating extraordinary wealth.”)

Homage to American values was the theme of the convention’s keynote speech by America’s military hero, General Colin Powell. For all his hard-won fame, Powell cracked, broadcasters only care about his son, Michael Powell — Furchgott-Roth’s ally on the Commission. I counted at least six FCC staffers besides Commissioners Powell and Furchgott-Roth attending the convention, including the heads of the Mass Media Bureau and the Enforcement Bureau who joined NAB panel sessions on the present and future of broadcasting policy.

When Congress relaxed the ownership rules in the Telecommunications Act of 1996, it was seen as a great victory for broadcasters, allowing for multiple ownership of media outlets. In the NAB hall, exhibitors pitched software to run multiple stations from a single machine while, with handouts and slide shows, broadcasters and their lawyers were trained in the intricacies of the ownership rules and the threats to free consolidation.

In his speech, General Powell trumpeted the triumph of America over the Soviet Union: “Our ideology is triumphant … There is no competing ideology.” The crowds who attended protests, speeches, workshops, concerts and marches this week in San Francisco might beg to differ. They warn us: dissenting views and diverse perspectives have been squeezed off of ever-concentrated airwaves.

The NAB disagrees: “Consolidation has greatly increased program diversity,” reads an article in a NAB press packet, “… superduopoly owners have broadened their scope to include such new offerings as Smooth Jazz, Urban AC, Hot Talk, AAA and even Christian Country.” That’s not the kind of diversity the public-interest advocates are concerned about, however.

Can national media chains serve the needs of local communities? The Bay Guardian, San Francisco’s independent weekly newspaper, notes that over half of that city’s commercial radio stations and all four TV stations are owned by out-of-town conglomerates. The NAB’s Fritts insists: “[A] large percentage of the program day is still local … local traffic reports and weather.” But traffic and weather are not the community concerns that bring protesters to the streets. While broadcasters claim $8 billion of community programming in the forms of public service announcements, social campaign support and weather emergency coverage, reformers point to studies by the Media Access Project and the Benton Foundation that find local public-affairs programming makes up less than one-half of one percent of the content offered by commercial broadcasters.

Consolidation and commercialization have also been blamed for the demise of ethnic and non-English radio. An industry report promoting the boom in Spanish-language radio indicates that market value might not be the key to diversity: almost 90 percent of all 600 Spanish-language radio stations are commercial, soon to include 2 formerly Korean-language stations purchased for $75 million.

To support the need for diversity and local representation, the majority of FCC Commissioners have recently relaxed regulations to allow new, low-power (short range) radio licenses. This is a victory that micro-radio advocates have been seeking for, for years, and now broadcasters are fighting with very sharp tooth and nail to have congress negate it. The message was hammered out throughout the convention: broadcasters must fight low-power radio because it will interfere with existing stations. The NAB’s resounding alarm has been echoed by the non-commercial National Public Radio (well represented at the convention). According to an NPR board member, low-power radio “is the most important issue facing public broadcasting in the last two decades.” This means fighting low-power radio is more important to public broadcasters than funding, programming and audience.

As for accusations of musical homogeneity in radio, so be it, says a “news analysis” in a trade paper: “What is society supposed to gain from having new stations which will play unpopular music? Why are we expected to give a spot on the dial to every disenchanted 22-year-old male (let’s face it, there aren’t many female pirates) who wants to play the bands which he and his two friends think are great but everyone else thinks sound like sick cats running over hot coals?”

But FCC Chairman William Kennard has held strong. “[W]e cannot deny opportunities to those who want to use the airwaves to speak to their communities simply because it might be inconvenient for those who already have these opportunities.”

Micro-radio advocates ride high under the banner of “free speech,” and broadcasters also wave that flag. Though the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is free-speech gospel, the courts have said that government can impose regulations to counteract monopolies on the limited spectrum of the airwaves. While the FCC can’t actively monitor and judge broadcast content, it can respond to complaints and set forth rules. The FCC’s Fairness Doctrine set time requirements for public-affairs coverage and obligated broadcasters to present contrasting points of view from the community. A Supreme Court decision led to the policy of “ascertainment,” whereby stations had to prove to the FCC that they actively sought, received and responded to community input on programming.

Then the market values of the Reagan years led to the dissolution of almost all of these public-interest obligation and ascertainment rules. Broadcasters and their supporters, like Commissioner Furchgott-Roth, declare the premise of limited spectrum obsolete in this digital age and warn that if commercial radio and television have to compete against technologies with no public-interest obligations they “cannot survive.” The NAB’s 20-year challenge to the Fairness Doctrine remnants (requiring broadcasters to offer response time to personal attacks or political editorials) had been deadlocked until last week when Chairman Kennard announced he will now cast his vote.

The spectrum did open up with the advent of digital broadcasting, but the new frequencies were simply given over to existing broadcasters in what was called by many appalled advocates and legislators the $70 billion “giveaway.” As NAB lobbyists are now warning their members to shore up for a possible fight against new regulations, a movement is pushing the FCC to establish public-interest obligations for the new digital stations. In 1998, Vice President Al Gore led a government investigation of what those obligations might be. The consensus between the broadcasters and advocates on the panel produced 10 recommendations, including the proposal that stations volunteer five minutes nightly for candidate coverage in an election month. After two years, as documented by, broadcasters are still refusing any quotas as they reap in the bucks for political ads. The NAB publishes the “Free Air Times” newsletter, which celebrates stations offering free time and “public service” in such forms as Democratic and Republican convention coverage.

Broadcasters are no longer required to seek out community opinion on programming, but tracking the audience is big business. Automated phone polls, ratings meters and increasingly sophisticated techniques help stations attract a broad, demographically targeted audience to sell to their advertisers. Unfortunately, the FCC doesn’t have such high-tech means to survey the public in determining their interest. When the FCC is considering a regulation it issues a Notice of Proposed Rule Making and invites public comment. Some groups are making efforts to rally responses to these queries — but when was the last time you were aware of a policy decision in the works?

A public uninformed about its rights is a public without authority. The People for Better TV coalition has been educating communities about the files that every broadcaster must maintain and make public. Demand to see the public files, they urge; just showing interest may get the ear of the local broadcaster back on the community. (Inside the NAB convention, the head of the FCC’s enforcement bureau warned broadcasters that the worst FCC penalties come from deception or evasion in filings, so challenging public files might offer one way for citizens to challenge egregious broadcasters.)

Bragged NAB President and CEO Eddie Fritts to a full ballroom at the opening of the NAB radio show: “Broadcasters are re-defining ways in which we entertain, inform and serve our local communities.”

The media democracy movement wants to give the public a say in how it is served. Though the corporate media may not report it, on the streets, in the courts and on the Web, there is a clamor for limitations on broadcasters’ power, for access to the airwaves and for accountability from those who control them.

For some specific reform proposals, visit the San Francisco Independent Media Center, which mobilized last week to support, cover and share information on the NAB and protests.


National Association of Broadcasters

Federal Communications Commission

1934 Communications Act

1996 Telecom. Act

The Public and Broadcasting FCC Manual (1999)


Civil Rights Forum on Communications Policy

Communications Policy and Practice


Media Access Project

Media Alliance

People For Better TV


Media Democracy Now

San Francisco Bay Guardian

San Francisco Independent Media Center

Author: Aliza Dichter

News Service: Media Channel


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