Martin open to resolving localism issues


Under questioning at the NAB Radio Show in Austin, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin acknowledged angst among broadcasters who think the Commission’s pending proposal to bring back some long extinct regulations in the name of localism goes too far, but he said broadcasters need to be aware of the real angst on Capitol Hill about whether local communities are being served. But with time running out for the Bush Administration and his time as Chairman, Martin expressed hope that broadcasters can come up with solutions to resolve the issue by the end of this year. What he’d like to see broadcasters do is come up with a statement of “best practices’ to ensure that stations are serving their communities. Much like the old radio and TV codes of the NAB, Martin thinks that could be a “safe harbor code of conduct” for broadcasters.

The Chairman noted in particular concerns about whether stations have personnel available to deal with emergencies if something happens at night. He also voiced irritation about voice-tracking from outside a market trying to sound local and questioned whether such practices are sufficiently identified to listeners. “The concern is real,” he said, comparing the perception of broadcasters on Capitol Hill to the Congress’ own low polling numbers. You may like your own Congressman, but think poorly of Congress. In his view, the broadcasting industry is not well regarded by lawmakers, even if they tend to like the stations in their own districts.

Martin applauded broadcasters, though, for their performance in dealing with the recent hurricane disasters. He called broadcasters a “critical component” of any emergency response. Some state and local authorities don’t seem to grasp that, so he noted that the FCC stepped in when called to make sure that broadcasters were treated like other emergency services and had access to fuel so their generators could keep stations on the air to deliver emergency information to the public.

Look for a decision soon on FCC rules for AM stations to have FM translators. Martin said the Commission has already granted about 150 waivers and he hopes to have a vote on final rules at next week’s FCC meeting. He said some other Commissioners have had questions about how that would affect LPFMs. Martin is himself a supporter of more LPFM stations and said he doesn’t think one has to be at the expense of the other. Withers Broadcasting owner Russ Withers, who put questions to Martin at the session, noted how one of those translators is allowing one of his stations to serve its community at night with 80 watts on FM, instead of a mere six watts on AM.

Withers was concerned, though, that the entire AM band could fall into an abyss because of low-quality receivers and the lack of antennas on many new automobiles. Chairman Martin says the best way to help AM is to push ahead with digital radio. “It’s truly the AM band that is the greatest beneficiary of digital,” he said. Martin acknowledged concerns that high-power AM stations will lose distant reception under digital, but aid “I think the plusses outweigh the negatives.”

Withers tried to get Martin to concede that the FCC had redefined the radio marketplace by approving the merger of Sirius and XM, thus setting the stage for further deregulation of AM and FM ownership. Martin, however, insisted that the Commission didn’t accept the argument from the satellite radio companies that they competed with a wide range of audio services, not just each other. He said the FCC stuck with the view that satellite radio is a distinct market and that is why so many restrictions were placed on the merger.

Martin is also moving to take action on sponsor identification. With Americans making more and more use of digital video recorders, there is more pressure on programmers to embed advertising within program content – leading the FCC to take a new look at when and how such sponsorship is disclosed to viewers. Martin said that’s mainly a TV issue, but also has implications for radio.

RBR/TVBR observation: If you have a “safe harbor,” that implies that there will be punishment for those who stray out of the harbor. So, such a voluntary code would not really be voluntary if stations could expect to face license challenges for failing to adhere to it. This seems to us a dangerous road to head down.