Congress Tunes In
Fortunately, a progressive agenda for radio policy is being advanced on Capitol Hill, often by bipartisan coalitions. To begin with, low-power FM radio (LPFM)--one of the best vehicles for developing and expanding community radio--is back on the docket. Five years after the commercial broadcasters pressured Congress to scale back the expansion of community radio with bogus allegations of interference, Senator John McCain has put forward a bill--the Local Community Radio Act of 2005--that would increase the number of LPFM station licenses by removing the restrictions on minimum channel separations between broadcasters. When McCain's bill was introduced in February, dozens of LPFM practitioners and advocates packed a forum at the FCC and conducted the biggest lobbying day in the history of community radio on Capitol Hill. And this time, McCain is determined to make sure that industry lies will not define the debate. "It is time for broadcasters to stop hiding behind false claims of interference when they are really afraid of the competition from truly local broadcasters," he says.
McCain also backs another initiative, the Localism in Broadcasting Reform Act of 2005, that would restore far stricter, pre-1996 rules for renewing radio station licenses, require the FCC to conduct a mandatory review of 5 percent of all license renewal applications--as opposed to just rubber-stamping them without comment--and set up a procedure where a challenge to an individual radio station's license would automatically trigger a review of licenses of all stations held by that company. McCain is charged up and ready to fight for the bill, declaring, "It will have a small impact on those stations that are currently meeting their public interest obligations, but it should have a large impact on those citizens whose local broadcaster is not meeting its obligation to serve the local community."
The Broadcasting Reform Act provides a needed vehicle for framing the public interest debate; activists at the local level can ask Senate candidates if they believe that a commercial broadcaster who refuses to cover the local community should lose the right to have a monopoly franchise to the public's airwaves, and if the answer is yes, the activists can demand a pledge to sign on as a co-sponsor of McCain's bill.
In the House, the Fairness and Accountability in Broadcasting Act, sponsored by New York Democrat Louise Slaughter, would reduce license renewal periods, reinstate the practice of holding public hearings to assess whether broadcasters are meeting public-interest standards, and require that stations cover important news stories with an eye to reflecting a diversity of opinions. At a time when right-wing radio dominates 90 percent of airtime devoted to public affairs, and when the GOP dominates the chamber, Slaughter's legislation will have a hard time getting a hearing. But, like McCain's legislation, it provides a tool for organizing, and for challenging Congressional candidates.
Meanwhile, Congress is about to launch a formal review of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, the law that loosened media ownership rules for radio, among other things. Senator Daniel Inouye, the ranking Democrat on the commerce committee, which oversees telecommunication and broadcasting regulation, has called for public sessions around the nation to get input on how the law should be updated. At the same time, the FCC, as mandated by the act, will again review its media ownership rules. FCC Democratic members Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, arguably the two most committed backers of the public interest to sit on the committee in decades, have both demanded that the FCC hold hearings across the nation to get public input. Already, the Republican majority on the committee--which, with the departure of controversial chair Michael Powell, will now be led by Bush Administration ally Kevin Martin--is quietly moving to limit debate. Copps and Adelstein will probably be forced to hold informal public hearings on their own. It is important to remember, however, that informal hearings held in 2003 played a critical role in galvanizing popular awareness of media ownership issues. Combined with Inouye's "listening sessions," these hearings should keep radio-related issues--particularly demands for a rollback in the number of stations that a single corporation can own and calls for investigations of payola allegations against commercial radio broadcasters--at the center of the debate through next year.
One hopes the heightened attention will help increase Congressional support for National Public Radio, which found a solid niche as the commercial system deteriorated. It's important to bolster public funding for NPR, while at the same time working to see that NPR-affiliated stations are made more accountable to their communities. A central theme in media reform activism has to be protecting and expanding resources for public broadcasting while insuring more popular involvement.
Ultimately, however, the debate about radio cannot focus on a single network, a single format or even a single solution. "The first step toward changing things involves recognizing that radio can be better, that it is supposed to be better," says Representative Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who has been out front on media issues for years. "When people understand that, and when they realize that because they own the airwaves they have a right to demand that radio be better, that's when we will see all of these concerns begin to be addressed."