AUSTIN, TEX. — One of the first things FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in his keynote address during the 2017 Radio Show luncheon had nothing to do with regulation, or government. Rather, it had everything to do with observation, reinforcing the belief among many radio industry leaders that Pai has their back — as opposed to his predecessor, Tom Wheeler.
After thanking NAB President/CEO and former U.S. Senator Gordon Smith for a “kind introduction,” he immediately congratulated Entercom President/CEO David Field for “the well-deserved honor of receiving the National Radio Award.”
That set the tone for an address that was well-received by all, with applause erupting at various points throughout Pai’s speech.
First and foremost, in contrast to President Trump’s repeated bashing of the nation’s media, Pai praised them.
“Whenever I meet with broadcasters like you, I always make a point of highlighting the importance of over-the-air radio and television, and expressing my gratitude for all that you do for your communities and our country,” Pai said. This has never been more timely and warranted than it is today.”
He discussed Storm Harvey, and the destruction that is still unfolding just hours to the southeast of here. In doing so, he saluted the FCC’s agents who went out in the storm to monitor damage to the region’s communications networks.
“But you can’t talk about the heroes of Hurricane Harvey without talking about broadcasters,” Pai said. “Some radio stations literally went above and beyond.”
One of those stations was CBS Radio’s KIKK-AM, a daytimer licensed to Pasadena, Tex.
KIKK-AM petitioned the FCC for authority to provide emergency information around-the-clock. “We were happy to grant that request within one hour,” Pai said.
He continued, “You heard stories of producers and engineers spending night after night at their stations so they could stay on the air with the crucial information audiences needed, like which grocery stores were open and whether or not they still had bottled water. You also had on-air talent coming in just to answer phones and lend support where they could.”
In a nod to stricken TEGNA-owned TV station KHOU-11 in Houston, Pai saluted reporter Brandi Smith for saving a truck driver on live television.
“I’m in awe of broadcasters’ response to Harvey …. but I’m not surprised,” Pai admitted. “That’s what broadcasters do. You go above and beyond to be there for your communities. That’s true anytime, but especially in times of crisis. As one station GM put it, ‘Radio is the ultimate connector.’ The spirit of service and community we saw so publicly on display during this devastating storm, and throughout its aftermath, is in your DNA.”
That’s a big reason, he thinks, why 93% of Americans still regularly tune in to radio.
“And that’s why, during Harvey, an enormous number of people relied on radio to get critical emergency information,” Pai said.
The FCC wants radio to help deepen that connection.
He used that promise to pivot to a discussion on AM revitalization. Pai believes that many daytimers, thanks to an FM translator, will enable them to operate on a full-time basis.
“That could be a lifeline, as I heard from a former daytimer in Kansas years ago whose ad revenues and listenership jumped after he found a translator,” Pai said.
Pai noted that the FCC’s Audio Division staff is currently reviewing all of the translator applications that were filed this summer. “I’m optimistic that we’ll have good news to report in the near future,” he said.
That same AM revitalization order called for the reduction of what Pai calls “regulatory burdens on AM broadcasters.” The FCC also “teed up additional proposals for lowering costs and improving signal quality.”
Pai used his address to formally share that the Commission is beginning to move forward on those proposals.
At the September Open Meeting, the Commission will vote on an order that would relax certain technical rules applicable to AM broadcasters operating directional antenna arrays in order to ease the regulatory and financial burdens faced by these broadcasters.
“The order is highly technical, so I’m not going to go into the details here,” Pai said. “But because of the new transparency that we have brought to the FCC, tomorrow [9/7] you will be able to see for yourself the draft order that I’ve shared with my colleagues.”
Reducing burdens on broadcasters proved to be a natural segue to Pai’s next topic — the FCC’s across-the-board review of its media rules.
To the applause of attendees, Pai said, “For the foreseeable future, I will therefore be sharing with my fellow Commissioners each and every month at least one Notice of Proposed Rulemaking teeing up outdated or unnecessary media regulations that should be eliminated or modified. Even though the deadline for public input only passed a few weeks ago, our September Commission meeting will feature the first action item to come out of this effort.”
The elimination of the FCC’s main studio rule is also being pushed by Pai.
“The rule is … undermining the public interest,” he said. “For example, I heard from one broadcaster in Minnesota who said he wanted to build out his construction permit for an AM station in a nearby town. But he didn’t, because the ‘main studio rule is a killer; the cost to maintain a staff…would make the construction of this facility a ticket of doom.’ And he isn’t alone, as broadcasters have made clear to the FCC.”
Pai said the record in this proceeding has now closed. “After reviewing it, I’ve reached the conclusion that it is time for the rule to go. Therefore, this fall, I plan to ask my fellow Commissioners to vote on an order to repeal it.”
Pai concluded his comments on noting the FCC’s stepped up efforts to kill pirate radio broadcasters, which attracted more applause.
He also made one of his trademark references to a sports event, mentioning that an Austin radio station gave birth to Verne Lundquist, the noted commentator and long-time radio voice of the Dallas Cowboys.
Austin also gave the world Walter Chronkite. “I daresay that Cronkite provided the right words for this moment and your industry,” Pai concluded. “He said, ‘Success is more permanent when you achieve it without abandoning your principles.’ Like every part of our society and economy, radio has been disrupted by new digital technologies. But it’s enduring and thriving today because your success is rooted on such sound principles: localism, diversity, community, and public service. To borrow from Cronkite again, ‘That’s the way it is on Wednesday, September 6, 2017.’ And that’s the way I hope it will be.”
— Reporting from John Ford in Austin, Tex.; and Adam R Jacobson in Hollywood, Fla.