William Kennard, until January the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, says that for most members of Congress, the FCC is seen as "this little honey pot" whose decisions they can influence to the benefit of their corporate friends. "The power to grant or deny licenses is the power to make people incredibly wealthy very quickly," says Kennard, who served three years as FCC chairman after three years as the commission's general counsel. He says he came to the job "feeling very strongly that the agency had become the captive of corporate interests and was really not connecting to its core mission" of protecting the public interest in communications. He soon learned firsthand that this might have been an optimistic appraisal.
Kennard's inability to advance even a very modest public service agenda is a good indication of the corruption of communications policy-making today. And indications are that matters will only get worse under the Bush Administration. Bush's choice to replace Kennard, Michael Powell, is an enthusiastic advocate of assisting the largest communications firms to get bigger without any strings attached. When Bush completes his overhaul of the five-person FCC (he's just nominated three new members), expect the commission to resume its traditional role of being, along with the Pentagon, Washington's largest corporate welfare office.
On April 19 the FCC relaxed its restriction against one company owning multiple television networks, meaning that Viacom, which bought CBS last year, can hold on to the UPN network. In the near term, expect to see the FCC remove the prohibition on firms owning TV stations and daily newspapers in the same community. Look also for the FCC to increase the percentage of the nation's markets in which a firm can own TV stations, currently 35 percent, or perhaps to remove all limits, as was done with radio in 1996. Down the road, virtually all the restrictions on cross-ownership among cable companies, TV stations, TV networks and other media and communications firms will be relaxed, if not eliminated. By all accounts, this will lead to a massive wave of mergers and ever more consolidation of media ownership.
In a recent long interview, Kennard voiced concerns about increasing consolidation in the media industry. Nevertheless, he is no radical. He speaks approvingly of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which many regard as written by and for communications corporations, and he is a strong proponent of privatization of communications worldwide. Nor is Kennard especially critical of commercial media per se. The main disagreement between Kennard and Powell–and the main struggle that occupies the FCC–is the core issue of how quickly markets should be deregulated. Kennard believes that the huge communications firms should not be deregulated until they face competition in their own industries; Powell, on the other hand, says that day will never come, so deregulate now and let the chips fall where they may.
Had Kennard's record been limited to disputes of this nature, his reign would have been forgettable. Instead, he highlighted a handful of public interest issues. "These broadcast licenses are not widgets. They impact the way people think, the way our children learn, the way people get information about politics in the public process, and I've always believed that it's vitally important that there be a multiplicity of outlets for expression," Kennard said.
From his first day on the job, Kennard was alarmed by the rapidly escalating cost of political campaigns, driven by the massive sums required to pay for TV political advertising. He hoped that the Gore Commission, whose mandate was to determine the public service obligations of commercial broadcasters in exchange for receiving free digital broadcasting spectrum in the 1996 bill, would propose free airtime for candidates. But, said Kennard, at the end of the day "the broadcast industry was fundamentally unwilling to accept any requirements that they broadcast more public interest programming." Kennard understood the core problem. "The Gore Commission report came after the spectrum had been given away. And so the leverage was lost."
Kennard persisted in his efforts, but since this was not a topic that had a corporate lobby ready to benefit, it raised the degree of difficulty exponentially. As he recalls, before he took office a former FCC chair pulled him aside and said, "'Bill, you've got to realize that when you are FCC chairman, you're basically a referee of big-money fights, and they're fights between the rich, on the one hand, and the very wealthy, on the other. The key to being a successful chairman is to keep the power in equilibrium. So if you give something to one powerful lobby one week, you better balance it out by giving their opponents something the next week.'"
Success with the free-airtime initiative would require going off the beaten path. "In order to do things that are in the public interest, where you have no powerful lobby behind you, the only way that you can garner support for it is to reach outside Washington, get outside the Beltway and build coalitions with people who will speak to their legislatures at the grassroots," Kennard said. He knew the idea was popular across the nation. "I'd go out to talk to groups, grassroots groups, and I'd say, 'Well, what about breaking some of this dependency of politicians on money by requiring broadcasters to give away some of their time for free?' and people would say, 'Yeah, that's a great idea.'" Not so, however, in Washington. "You say the same thing at a cocktail party in Washington and people would look at you like you were crazy."
The core problem was that the commercial broadcasters' lobby, the National Association of Broadcasters, was resolutely opposed to the idea, and many members of Congress informed Kennard in no uncertain terms to back off. "When I first started talking to people about free airtime for political candidates, some of my oldest and closest friends in Washington took me to breakfast, and they said, 'Bill, don't do this, it's political suicide, you know. You're just going to kill yourself.'" In the end, Kennard abandoned his campaign for free airtime.
A similar response greeted Kennard when he suggested that the ownership deregulation for radio stations authorized by the 1996 law had been counterproductive–it was supposed to increase competition and improve quality–and that something needed to be done to rectify the situation. Prior to 1996, firms were limited to owning twenty-eight stations total and no more than four in a market. (And that was after the Reagan deregulation, which basically doubled the legal totals for radio-station ownership.) After 1996 the cap was eliminated for the national total, and a firm could own up to eight in the largest markets. As a result, radio was transformed almost overnight–over one-half of US commercial radio stations have been sold in the past five years–into a highly concentrated market in which a handful of firms own hundreds of stations and nearly every market is dominated by two or three firms maxed out with six to eight stations each. It gave these new superpowers the ability to generate superprofits by providing standardized fare, de-emphasizing more costly local and original shows, and turning radio programming into a vast infomercial. It produced ecstasy on Wall Street, but hangovers everywhere else.
This led to Kennard's most innovative policy proposal, and the measure that even in tatters marks his legacy: Low Power FM Radio (LPFM), also known as microradio. LPFM vaulted into prominence in the 1990s as an unlicensed "pirate" service whereby folks could use transmitters costing a few hundred dollars at most to send a signal that might reach up to half of a major city. Microbroadcasters used the open slots on the FM dial, of which there were many. As FCC general counsel, and later as chairman, Kennard was commissioned to stop microbroadcasters, since they were unlicensed. But he could see that this was a technology that had gone far beyond the existing laws, and the rapid emergence of hundreds of microbroadcasters underlined that it was a phenomenon that was only going to continue to grow, legal or not.
If microradio was unpopular inside the Beltway and among the moneyed interests, it was embraced by just about everyone else familiar with it. "I kept hearing, particularly from church groups and local public service organizations, that the commercial broadcasters weren't carrying their [public service announcements] anymore, so they had no access to the airwaves. They couldn't afford to buy stations because the stations were just priced out of their range. And that radio had basically been really important to them as a way of communicating with their constituencies but they couldn't access it anymore."
By early 2000, after a year of study and deliberation, Kennard and the FCC came up with a plan for up to 1,000 microbroadcasters nationwide. They were to be nonprofit and noncommercial, "so they would be somewhat immune from the profit pressures of the commercial broadcasters." Kennard's plan also rejected the auctioning of microradio licenses to the highest bidder, "because we knew if we auctioned them off, even if they were noncommercial reserved, then they would go to the well-heeled noncommercial interests, you know, churches that can raise a lot of money, or nationally based organizations."
The commercial broadcasters opposed microradio. That these stations were to be noncommercial provided little solace; they might still take away listeners or force the radio empires to run fewer ads or spend more on local programming. So after the FCC announced its plan, the NAB spent the balance of 2000 working to get Congress to scuttle it. But the pro-LPFM forces had developed a strong grassroots lobbying organization over the years, and it swung into action. Kennard worked with them to generate support. "We had the AFL-CIO and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights; all the major church groups supported it."
The NAB argued that LPFM was a poorly conceived plan that would produce widespread interference with existing radio signals, which Kennard called a "smokescreen," noting that the FCC plan for the spacing of stations had been recommended by the commercial broadcasters themselves a decade earlier to accommodate the needs of commercial stations. The NAB succeeded in getting the House to effectively overturn the LPFM measure by watering it down so only a fraction of the microstations authorized by the FCC could get on the air. The Senate was less willing to comply with the NAB, and several senators worked to protect Kennard's LPFM plan.
A surprise entrant into the fray helped tip the balance to the commercial broadcasters: National Public Radio. Kennard recalled that "they were up on Capitol Hill incessantly trying to kill it. And it really hurt with Democratic lawmakers." Kennard believes that NPR acted as it did to curry favor with the NAB for its upcoming budget battles, and to maintain domination over noncommercial radio broadcasting. "I think it's a real black mark on NPR's record."
It would be difficult to imagine a more corrupt ending for the FCC's LPFM plan than what transpired in the Senate in late December, when the House's anti-LPFM bill was attached to an appropriations bill the President could not veto, as it included several measures he had fought hard to have included in the budget. "There were no hearings," Kennard said. "It was done in the appropriations process at a time when all the special interests know that their power is greatly enhanced because it is all done in the dark of night…. You know, you wake up the next day and legislation is written. The people who had the most to say about it are completely cut out of the process. If I sound bitter, I am."
Shortly afterward, Kennard resigned so President Bush could fill his job. The promotion of Michael Powell, who had opposed the LPFM plan, was met with euphoria by the NAB and the other corporate lobbyists. Subsequently, Powell announced his support for relaxing or eliminating nearly all the remaining ownership restrictions on broadcasters and cable companies, which could prompt a wave of consolidation that would dwarf the record-setting pace of the past five years.
Kennard said progressives should pay close attention to the FCC, because "even though it is almost an invisible government agency, it plays a vitally important role in how people live their day-to-day lives and how our democracy functions." But the lessons from his experience are clear: Breaking the corporate grip over communications in this nation will require grassroots organization and popular mobilization.