Commissioners spar with Congress


During the Bush administration, two of the hottest broadcast issues on Capitol Hill were broadcast indecency and ownership consolidation. The latter issue was so hot that Congress took the rare step of issuing a Resolution of Disapproval over the Michael Powell 6/2/03 deregulation scheme. Yesterday, none of that came up. The issues of the day were the Fairness Doctrine, Mark Lloyd and LPFM.

Well, there was one consolidation question, and it came from an unusual source – a conservative Republican. Which is, however, a reminder that this issue tended to cut strongly across party lines.

Nathan Deal (R-GA) was the Republican in question, and he clearly has a bone to pick with Cox Radio and he made sure new FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski (D) knows about it. Deal doesn’t like the size of the radio station cluster that Cox has assembled in the Athens, GA market, home to the University of Georgia, and he particularly doesn’t like the latest deal for the school’s sports broadcast rights. Although Cox itself didn’t do the blockbuster eight-year deal for $92.8 million with the school, its WSB-AM Atlanta signed a deal with the rights holder, ISP Sports, to remain the flagship station for the Bulldog broadcasts. And according to Deal, that arrangement has blocked the game broadcasts from being carried as well on many small market stations which had aired them for decades.

Deal hit Genachowski with two questions. First, he wanted to know, does the FCC take into account in license renewals whether a radio station actually provides any service to its city of license? Second, does the Commission investigate whether programming contracts by broadcasters are anti-competitive?

In true Washington style, Genachowski dodged answering either and essentially told the congressman, I’ll check into it and get back to you.

Mike Doyle (D-PA) wanted to know if the members of the FCC support having Congress lift the 3rd adjacent channel interference restriction on Low-Power FM stations – and the answer will not please broadcasters. All five said “yes.” Doyle is one of the primary sponsors of the Local Community Radio Act (HR 1147), which would repeal legislation adopted in 2001 at the urging of broadcasters which barred the FCC from relaxing the 3rd adjacent channel rule to shoe-horn in more LPFMs.

Radio/TV Talk host Glenn Beck and conservative bloggers have been busy lately attacking FCC Chief Diversity Officer Mark Lloyd and yesterday Greg Walden (R-OR) carried the battle to Capitol Hill. Walden, a former small market radio station owner, quoted some past writings by Lloyd charging that commercial broadcasters want to use the public airwaves without any responsibility to serve the public – comments which the former broadcaster said he found “very offensive.” And Walden questioned whether Lloyd might try to use his position at the FCC to bring in something like the former Fairness Doctrine under the guise of promoting localism and diversity. “I hope we don’t have a government speech czar in place,” he said. The congressman suggested that Lloyd ought to be brought up to Capitol Hill to answer questions from lawmakers.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski (D) came to the defense of Lloyd, whom he appointed to his post. He noted that policy decisions at the FCC are made by the Commissioners, not staffers. “In my opinion, an expert agency needs to have a broad range of people of different backgrounds,” the Chairman said. And Genechowski noted that in his role focused on diversity, Lloyd is not involved in broadcast license policies.

Commissioner Michael Copps (D) also defended Lloyd, noting how he had been helpful during the DTV transition preparation when Copps was Acting Chairman and Lloyd was still at the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights/ Education Fund.

Commissioner Robert McDowell (R) told Walden that he also had concerns about some of Lloyd’s writings, but he said it was the right of the FCC Chairman to have in place the people he wants at the agency. The two newest Commissioners, Clyburn (D) and Baker (R), chose not to handle the political hot potato.

RBR/TVBR observation: It is our belief that the Fairness Doctrine issue may never ever go away. This Congress could pass a law saying it may never be reinstated or subtly duplicated. And the next Congress could come in and undo that law. Nobody will own up to a plan to put it back in place, but since if it is not in place there is always the chance that someone somewhere is hatching a plot to revive it, it will remain fertile ground for griping for whosoever is in the mood.