Anger Fills the Air(waves) at FCC Hearing

Activists from the left and right challenge corporate media in Clear Channel's own back yard

As the home of Clear Channel Communications, the world's largest owner of radio stations, San Antonio is arguably Ground Zero in the world of corporate broadcasting. So on Jan. 28 it was only fitting that the Alamo City became Ground Zero of efforts to reform broadcasting. The Federal Communications Commission came to Texas last week to continue its hearings on localism: the notion – actually, the legal requirement – that broadcasters must use the publicly owned airwaves to serve the communities in which they operate, or else surrender their licenses. And overwhelmingly, the message sent to the FCC was that broadcasters are failing in that mission, and that FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell is actively encouraging that failure.

"I see these hearings as an opportunity to bring these license renewals to life," said Powell to the standing-room-only hearing at the San Antonio City Council chambers. "It is one thing for us commissioners to sit at our desks in Washington and read dry rule applications, but it is quite another to talk directly to the public who listens to those stations every day. We wish to spread the word that renewals are not just a Beltway phenomenon; they are open to anyone who has something to say about their local stations."

Does Powell actually believe those magnanimous words? Last year, the FCC chairman (son of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell) proposed rule changes that would allow a handful of big corporations to further consolidate their already heavily concentrated ownership of the media. Despite a staggering million-plus submitted comments from the public against the changes – an unprecedented response level for what could easily be seen as an arcane public policy issue – Powell and the other two Republican appointees on the FCC charged ahead with deregulation, out-voting the two Democratic appointees.

To put that into an Austin context, consider that two major corporations – Emmis and Clear Channel – already control a combined 12 frequencies in Austin, a situation that would have been illegal only a decade ago (see chart). Meanwhile, due to lack of available space on the dial, two noncommercial community stations – KOOP and UT student station KVRX – are forced to share a single frequency at 91.7FM.

Aside from a few people praising the Amber Alert system or help given to their charities, most of the public and invited panelists alike made it quite clear to Powell that his professed support for localism is undercut by his own stance on ownership. "The issue is not whether broadcasters are being local to a greater or lesser degree, but rather whether the lax ownership rules hinder the democratic process and exclude community interests and representation," said panelist Lydia Camarillo, vice-president of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project. "Diversity of ownership breeds competition, and competition breeds better journalism and diverse perspectives in the news."

Camarillo was especially concerned that minority viewpoints suffered under consolidation. Despite a growing Latino electorate, she said, Americans were not able to understand the potential power in such gains because Latino stories "are not being told by Latinos, and even more rarely are they reported by Latinos. ... The number of television stations owned by minorities in the past three years has dropped from 33 to 20."

In response, Clear Channel's San Antonio market manager responded to the protest by equating community interests with commercial interests. "In my world, localism is more than a concept," said Tom Glade. "It's the way I operate my business. And the reason couldn't be simpler – it's called the radio scan button. ... Our listeners have many, many choices for news, information, and entertainment." In San Antonio, though, several of those "many" choices – one TV and six radio stations – are owned by Clear Channel.

Other corporate reps likewise missed the point. Steve Giust, general manager of San Antonio Univision affiliate KWEX-TV, was asked by an audience member, "If Univision is working to meet the community interests, as you assert, why does it portray such a narrow range of women on its own programming?" Giust artlessly replied, "We have lovely women on some of our shows" – a comment which drew lusty booing. He continued, "Locally, I think our local talent is just as beautiful as our network talent," garnering more catcalls. Rather than dig his hole any deeper, he stammered, "That's all I have to say."

And it wasn't just the suits who betrayed their weak grasp of the concept of "public airwaves": Joe Linson of the San Antonio NAACP said the dissatisfied should just "buy your own station."

Asleep at the Wheel founder Ray Benson was invited to speak for artistic interests, and he complained, "When I started making records in the early Seventies, things were a lot different. Stations had larger playlists [and] regional stars were made all over the country. ... Numerous hit records were started in markets and nurtured there and grew to national hits. Today, because a single company owns so many stations, the access has been limited to four major record labels [and] a small handful of consultants and independent promoters. The price of entry into this marketplace has become staggering."

Benson complimented Clear Channel properties KASE and KVET for playing regional artists, but noted that Austin is a unique market that he doesn't see duplicated elsewhere. Ray Hair, president of the Dallas-Fort Worth Professional Musicians Association, was less forgiving of Clear Channel: "The way big radio operates in the contemporary musical environment doesn't help the growth of lively, diverse music scenes. Instead, it gets in the way." He told of his own experience promoting a music festival heavy on local acts, until local Clear Channel stations made their continued sponsorship contingent upon the festival's booking talent through Clear Channel (which is also the nation's largest concert promoter). "Local musicians lost their role in helping to create that local three-day event, [and] local and regional musicians lost a lot of gigs, as Clear Channel brought in the nonlocal acts that they wanted to promote."

Media reform efforts have led to unlikely alliances between the cultural left and right; other panelists and speakers complained about obscenity, sex, and violence on the airwaves and the unresponsiveness of stations to their objections. Ray Rossman of the Parents Television Council said, "They admonish us to change the channel, but that shouldn't be our only option." One problem, he said, is that the 1996 telecom reform act now allows networks to own many local affiliates (under prior law, a network could only own five stations), so local program managers have no option to pre-empt programming that a community might find offensive. (The Super Bowl halftime show has since given the PTC more ammo. On Monday, an outraged Powell demanded an FCC probe of Janet Jackson's right breast; CBS faces possibly multimillion-dollar fines.)

Thankfully, people who couldn't get into the hearing or travel to San Antonio – at least those who can afford cable – could still view the hearing. In what certainly qualifies as an act of community service, the Belo-owned Texas Cable News network carried the first four hours of the 51/2-hour hearing live, without commercial interruption. (In Austin, TXCN is carried on Time Warner digital cable Channel 324.)

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Clear Channel Communications, Federal Communications Commission, localism, Michael K. Powell, Emmis Communications

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