Commercial broadcasting has gone through stunning changes in recent years, as deregulation and consolidation have shifted the balance of power to a small handful of companies with interests and investments spread across the media landscape. Ironically, the changes have been most profound in radio, a medium ideally suited to local ownership and diverse content.
That historic shift has inspired citizens to gather in San Francisco in September for the annual radio convention of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), the principal lobbying and membership organization of the commercial broadcasting industry. Activists will take to the streets to voice their opposition to corporate management of the public's airwaves, and to reopen the debate over who exactly should get access to this vital public resource.
How Did NAB Nab the Airwaves?
Since the Telecommunications Act of 1996-- which was essentially bought and paid for by the NAB and other corporate media lobbies-- there has been a parade of media mergers. The most dramatic consolidation has occurred in the radio industry, creating a handful of huge radio empires like Viacom/Infinity and Clear Channel.
The damage to radio diversity is staggering: Over 4,000 radio stations have been bought up since the Telecom Act, and minority ownership of media declined about 9 percent in the two years following the Telecom Act, the largest drop since the federal government began tracking such data (USA Today, 7/7/98).
The changes wrought by Telecom '96 should come as no surprise: The NAB is one of the top lobbying groups on Capitol Hill, and was intimately involved in crafting some of the legislation themselves.
But the NAB still isn't satisfied, with broadcasters looking to deregulate the market even further. They're now pushing the FCC for an end to cross-ownership rules, which are all that prevent newspapers from being absorbed by the broadcast industry. They have already successfully lobbied to eliminate rules that prohibited a network from owning two stations in the same city.
What's at Stake?
Low Power Radio: Against this backdrop of an increasingly consolidated media, low power radio activists have been working for years to free the airwaves from the large broadcast companies. Through years of civil disobedience, activists eventually won a partial victory in January 2000, when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced its plans to begin licensing low power stations in much of the country.
Quick to counterattack, the NAB led a lobbying effort to get the FCC to reverse course. What was originally a plan to bring literally hundreds of new, non-commercial voices to the airwaves now faces an uphill battle on Capitol Hill.
Campaign Finance Reform: Just like low power radio, campaign finance reform is an issue that has garnered support across the political spectrum. Because much of the money raised for political campaigns is given to corporate media to buy campaign advertising, the NAB has consistently opposed common sense campaign finance reform measures like free airtime for candidates.
The gravy train for broadcasters keeps getting richer: One study found that House incumbents were spending 60 percent more on television and radio advertising in 1994 than they had just four years prior. Broadcasters work the other side of the political money game as well, donating millions of dollars in "soft money" to the major political parties.
"Public Interest" PR: While long-standing FCC provisions mandate that broadcasters serve the public "interest, convenience or necessity," few licenses have been revoked for failure to provide public service. For their part, the broadcast industry wants you to know that they indeed perform a valuable service to the community.
To prove their point, the NAB commissions an annual study that assigns a dollar figure to their public service. In 1998, the NAB's "Bringing Community Service Home" figured that commercial broadcasters provided public services to the tune of $7 billion a year. Over half of that total, however, is based on the dubious assumption that all the airtime given to PSAs could have been sold to paying advertisers; many PSAs air in hard-to-sell timeslots, like the middle of the night.
A more concrete measurement of community service, by the Benton Foundation and Media Access Project, evaluated the programming offered by commercial media. They found that local public affairs shows made up less than one half of one percent of the fare offered by commercial broadcasters. Thirty-five percent of the stations had no local news, and 25 percent had no local public affairs programming whatsoever.
From the perspective of corporate media, the future looks brighter than ever. Time Warner CEO Gerald Levin (1/2/00, CNN) foresees a world where the media business is "more important than government... more important than educational institutions and non-profits." He added that corporate dominance "is going to be forced anyhow because when you have a system that is instantly available everywhere in the world immediately, then the old-fashioned regulatory system has to give way."
ACTION: Activists from around the country are heading to San Francisco in September to make their voices heard. If you can't make it, you can still contribute to the efforts to free the public airwaves from corporate domination.
Write to the Federal Communications Commission and demand that they create common sense public interest requirements for broadcasters operating on the public airwaves.
Chair William Kennard, Federal Communications Commission. 445 12th St. S.W. Washington, D.C. 205541-888-225-5322 (1-888-CALL FCC) email@example.com
Write to the National Association of Broadcasters to let them know that citizens of a democracy demand more substance from the broadcasting conglomerates than they are currently delivering. The broadcasters get free access to the airwaves-- what does the public get in return?
President Edward O. Fritts, National Association of Broadcasters. 1771 N Street, N.W. Washington, DC 20036 Phone: 202-429-5300; Fax: firstname.lastname@example.org
For more on the NAB and the broadcast industry, see FAIR's Fight the Nab! page.
To learn how to get involved in the demonstrations in San Francisco, see the Media Democracy Now! site.