No one knows yet what will be in the Proposed Rulemaking on Broadcasting Localism that FCC Chairman Kevin Martin will unveil at tomorrow’s meeting, but based on what’s been leaking from the Commission into press reports, broadcasters are worried that Martin wants to bring back the bad old days of excessive regulation and micromanaging by Washington bureaucrats.
In a letter fired off Friday to all five Commissioners, 34 state broadcast associations complained that the leaked description of the rulemaking proposes obligations on radio and television stations “that are describable only as a return to government imposed mandates on programming that were rolled back over a quarter century ago as unnecessary in a competitive marketplace, particularly given the First Amendment burden that they imposed.” And the letter said it was hard to imagine any “rational justification” for bring back those outdated requirements. “The re-imposition of ascertainment and specific programming requirements, more stringent main studio rules, and oversight of radio playlists would be particularly unsound policy, especially now, when broadcasters face more competition than ever before – unimaginably more competition that that faced by broadcasters when the Commission concluded that marketplace forces obviated the need for these types of programming restrictions in the mid-1980s,” attorney David Oxenford of the law firm of Davis Wright Tremaine LLP wrote on behalf of the state associations. Rather than needing government micromanaging, the letter said it is in each broadcaster’s self-interest to determine the needs of their local audience – and that flexibility is required so that each broadcaster can determine how best to serve the public interest in their community.
A similar letter was sent Friday by Oxenford on behalf of a number of broadcast group owners, including such well-known names as Buckley Broadcasting, Connoisseur Media Mid-West Family stations and Triad Broadcasting.
RBR observation: If the rumors about what Chairman Martin has up his sleeve are true, he is seriously disconnected from reality. Rather than enhancing “localism,” some of the proposals would serve to force many of the remaining “mom & pop” owners to consider selling out of the business. Requiring on-site staffing at all times when a station is operating is the most obvious straw that could break the camel’s back for struggling standalones. Technological and deregulatory advances in recent years made it possible for many small radio stations to increase their broadcast schedule to 24-hour service. Rather than enduring the added cost of having a board operator sitting around watching the meters bob up and down, many of those stations will have to sign off each evening and have dead air until morning drive begins – or sell to a competitor with a cluster who can afford to have one minimum-wage employee on hand to twiddle their thumbs all night. As for the idea of FCC oversight of radio station music playlists, if that is indeed one of Martin’s proposals, the Chairman needs to go back to law school for a refresher course in basic constitutional law. That kind of intrusive government micromanaging of programming decision-making didn’t even exist in the bad old days of FCC over-regulation. The so-called “localism” proposals that are rumored to be on tap for introduction tomorrow would seem to most heavily impact radio, but television stations would also be hit with new costs associated with pointless government record-keeping. And the most likely result is that bringing back formal ascertainment requirements would do nothing to enhance a station’s service to its community, but would provide a new place for broadcasters to get tripped up in their public file maintenance requirements – resulting in fines for technical violations that had no actual impact on the public.