Faced with a national outcry so intense that Congress is moving to reverse his attempt to eliminate controls on media consolidation and monopoly, Federal Communications Commission chair Michael Powell announced Wednesday that the FCC was launching a Localism in Broadcasting Initiative.
Powell says his agency is forming a task force to study how federal policies affect locally-oriented programming. In addition, the chairman says he also wants the commission to issue more licenses to not-for-profit groups seeking to set up low-power FM radio stations in their neighborhoods.
Both of those steps are appropriate. It is atrocious that the FCC has failed to study the impact on local programming of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and other federal decisions that have promoted consolidation and conglomeration of radio station ownership -- ending hometown control of hundreds of stations and ushering in an era of homogenized music and shuttered local news departments. And the roadblocks erected by the FCC to the licensing of low-power stations have been indefensible.
But Powell deserves no praise. Throughout this spring's debate over whether to allow big media companies to consolidate their control over local markets -- by lifting restrictions that had prevented one firm from buying the daily newspaper, radio and television stations and the cable system in a single city -- Powell rejected concerns about damage to local content and control. "We should have vetted these issues before we voted," says FCC commissioner Michael Copps, who resisted Powell's rush to rewrite the ownership rules to benefit big corporations. "Instead, we voted; now we are going to vet. This is a policy of 'ready, fire, aim.'"
Copps has it exactly right. Powell is talking about localism now only because the House of Representatives has already moved to block one of the key rule changes while the Senate is preparing to consider a proposal to overturn all six changes that were approved June 2 by 3-2 votes of the FCC. There is nothing sincere about the chairman's "commitment" to localism. He is merely trying to avert Congressional intervention that could prevent him from delivering on the Bush administration's promise to make it possible for big media corporations (which also happen to be big campaign contributors) to expand their reach at the local and national levels.
If Congress backs off and the rule changes are implemented, however, localism will be destroyed even as it is studied. As Commissioner Copps says, "We now hear that there may be localism issues after all. But what's going to happen when we study localism over the next year? The answer is: deals, deals and more deals. The answer is more standardized and homogenized programming. The answer is more indecency on the people's airwaves. The answer is less diversity of viewpoint and less coverage of local news."
U.S. Senator Byron Dorgan, D-North Dakota, who has been spearheading Senate efforts to overturn FCC moves to allow consolidation of ownership of local media and the dramatic expansion of the number of television stations nationally that a network can own, echoed Copps' concern. "It is a very curious strategy for the chairman to change the rules in a way that will dramatically damage localism and then, nearly three months later, propose a process to examine how those rules might affect localism," says Dorgan.
Dorgan knows that Powell's study will do nothing to preserve local programming. And the issuing of a few more low-power radio station licenses -- "a very small step in the right direction," says the Prometheus Radio Project's Pete Tridish, a veteran low-power radio activist -- is not going to balance off the loss of diversity and local programming that will result if FCC-approved rule changes are implemented.
Dorgan gets it. He's going ahead with the push to overturn Powell's rule changes, an initiative that is being encouraged by MoveOn.org and other activist groups. "The chairman's statements (Wednesday) do nothing to remove the need to revoke these rules," says Dorgan.