Sep 18 2000

Open Letter to the NAB

Dear Mr. Fritts,

We are writing to remind the NAB that this country’s airwaves are the property of the American people. Independent, critical and genuinely representative media are crucial to a healthy democracy; without them, citizens lose the means to control and participate in the public debate that sets the nation’s political agenda.

As it stands today, the broadcasting industry is failing to serve the public. Dissenting political viewpoints are routinely marginalized in national mainstream media, and the interests and perspectives of women, people of color, labor, local communities, and lesbians, gays and bisexuals are consistently underrepresented. Across the country, programming that addresses local concerns is almost non-existent: A study by the Benton Foundation and the Media Access Project recently 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 surveyed had no local news, and 25 percent had no local public affairs programming whatsoever.

The broadcasters represented by the NAB get free access to our airwaves– what does the public get in return? A world dominated by profit-driven media conglomerates more interested in delivering viewers to advertisers than in serving the needs of the public.

Thanks in large part to the lobbying activities of the NAB, commercial broadcasting has gone through stunning negative 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. The NAB was also instrumental in securing the digital spectrum giveaway, which took advantage of new technology to give broadcasters free access to up to six new channels where they previously controlled only one– a gift the FCC estimates was worth as much as $70 billion.

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. Ironically, the consolidation has been most profound in radio, a medium ideally suited to local ownership and diverse content. The damage to radio diversity is staggering: Over 4,000 radio stations have been bought out 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.

It’s this historic shift that has inspired citizens to gather in San Francisco this September for the NAB’s annual radio convention. The public’s awareness that corporate media has failed them increases day by day, and with it comes the understanding that the NAB– one of the most powerful influences in Washington– is a key player in consolidating corporate control of our airwaves. That’s why citizens will come together in San Francisco 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 precious resource.

As supporters of the planned demonstrations, we want to bring to the NAB’s attention just a few of the key issues motivating many of the groups and individuals gathering for September’s protests.

Of particular concern is the NAB’s campaign for further deregulation of the telecommunications industry. Having successfully lobbied to eliminate rules that prohibited a network from owning two stations in the same city, broadcasters are now pushing the FCC for an end to cross-ownership rules, which are all that prevent newspapers from being absorbed by the broadcast industry. The industry is also lobbying against regulations that would guarantee open access to the Internet over broadband cable lines, raising concerns that the Internet may grow to resemble cable television, where content is controlled by a handful of interconnected firms.

Low power radio is an area in which the NAB’s commitment to keeping non-commercial, community-based voices off the air is distressingly clear. When the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced its plans to begin licensing low-power stations in much of the country, the NAB led an intense 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.

Just like low power radio, campaign finance reform has garnered support across the political spectrum. But the NAB has consistently opposed common sense campaign finance reform measures, in large part because much of the money raised for political campaigns is given to corporate media to buy campaign advertising. According to the Center for Public Integrity, the NAB and five major media outlets spent nearly $11 million from 1996 through 1998 to defeat a dozen bills mandating free airtime for political 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. The Center for Public Integrity estimates that broadcasters will earn $600 million this year from political advertising on television. Broadcasters work the other side of the political money game as well, donating millions of dollars in “soft money” to the major political parties.

From the perspective of corporate media, the future looks brighter than ever. Time Warner CEO Gerald Levin (1/2/00, CNN), whose company’s lobbying efforts are parallel to the NAB’s, 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.”

From the public’s perspective, it is becoming impossible to escape the conclusion that corporate control of media is inimical to democracy.


Janine Jackson FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting)

Ben BagdikianFormer Dean, Graduate School of Journalism, University of California, Berkeley

Noam ChomskyProfessor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Robert W. McChesney Professor, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Glenn AustinAmericans for Radio Diversity

Peter FranckNational Lawyers Guild Center for Democratic Communications

Kevin Danaher Global Exchange

Andrea BuffaMedia Alliance

Ofelia Ortiz Cuevas People for Better TV

Pete TriDishPrometheus Radio Project

Richard EdmondsonSan Francisco Liberation Radio

Greg RuggieroSeven Stories Press

For more on the NAB and the broadcast industry, see FAIR’s Fight the Nab! page.

To learn about the demonstrations in San Francisco, see Media Alliance’s Media Democracy Now! site.