August 3, 2004

No Bouquets for the FCC in Monterey

By Malaika Costello-Dougherty

The audience was rambunctious, spontaneously cheering and booing the parade of speakers at an FCC hearing on localism in Monterey’s Steinbeck Forum on July 21.

But it was the testimony of David “Davey D.” Cook, a San Francisco Bay Area disc jockey and talk show host, that brought many of the several hundred residents, academics, media professionals and activists to their feet.

An 11-year veteran of the Bay Area hip-hop radio station KMEL, Cook aired an interview with Rep. Barbara Lee (D., Calif.) in October 2001, and about two weeks later was laid off.

Clear Channel, which purchased the station in 1999, said the layoff was due to budget cuts.

But critics insist it was the work of a corporation that doesn’t tolerate dissent.

As the lone opposing vote in Congress’ authorization of the invasion of Afghanistan, Lee was one of many politically contrarian guests featured on Cook’s radio program — voices that he said are no longer heard by KMEL’s community of listeners.

“There is a serious price you pay if you are inside and speak out,” he said. “[Clear Channel] doesn’t have a sincere commitment to public discourse.”

He received the only standing ovation in an evening full of angry public comment, deep cynicism and suspicion about both media and the FCC.

Hot-button topics included a lack of election coverage, indecency and a lack of media responsiveness to local needs.

Looming behind it all was FCC chairman Michael Powell’s stalled drive to loosen media-ownership rules, which was turned back in June by the Third District Court in Philadelphia.

The court ruled in part that the commission “did not provide a reasoned analysis” for deregulation.

The FCC has not yet decided on whether to appeal to the Supreme Court or begin the rulemaking process anew, and in the meantime is gathering public comment through the localism hearings.

“Public concern”

In Monterey, the six-hour meeting got off to a contentious start with members of the audience shouting “Where’s Powell?”

According to FCC spokesman Richard Diamond, the chairman had cancelled his appearance due to a scheduling conflict.

Josh Silver, director of Free Press, a Massachusetts media-reform nonprofit, criticized the chairman’s absence by noting that Powell did attend “a series of broadcast industry events in nearby Menlo Park and San Francisco” the previous week.

Powell himself had called for the meetings in August 2003, after his free market agenda was turned back in court.

“[W]e heard the voice of public concern about the media loud and clear. Localism is at the core of these concerns, and we are going to tackle it head on,” he said.

On July 1, Powell released a “Notice of Inquiry” (PDF) announcing the localism hearings as a means of determining “whether market forces will provide enough incentive for a broadcast station to satisfy a particular policy goal, or whether regulation is needed.”

In the same document, Commissioner Michael Copps, a Democrat who exemplifies the FCC’s sharp partisan split, said that he supports the commission’s “renewed interest in promoting localism, although we should have examined these issues prior to loosening our media concentration protections, not after those rules were gutted.”

In Monterey, Kathleen Abernathy, a member of the FCC’s Republican majority, said that the commission is “committed to the fact that we need to strengthen localism from the chairman on down. [Localism] is about how you make sure that everyone is serving their local community. We’ve got to figure out how to improve this.”

Despite these conciliatory motives, Abernathy, plus Copps and his fellow Democrat Jonathan Adelstein, got an earful from audience members who said that their interests were not being served by local broadcasters, and that they distrusted corporate media.

“There is a youth generation in this country that is being manipulated,” said Mike McManus, the 17-year-old promotions director of KPSB, a high school radio station in Pebble Beach, Calif. “[W]e are treated as dollar signs … Carry this message to the other commissioners who couldn’t be here, especially the chairman … we cannot be neglected, we cannot be denied. We’re here to fight. We are not leaving.”

The crowd nearly howled in approval, and throughout the evening proved intensely skeptical of the FCC’s good intentions.

Paul Johnston of the Monterey Bay Central Labor Council criticized the commission for choosing “perhaps one of the most isolated places you could have picked to have your only hearing on the West Coast.”

“This is pseudo-accountability,” said another audience member. “Go back to D.C. and make your rules; we’ll continue to break them.”

Consolidation fears

Many speakers complained about Clear Channel, which operates 1,200 radio stations throughout the country.

Monterey County emergency services manager Harry B. Robbins Jr. said the company’s automated, remote-controlled radio stations have fewer live air staff on hand in times of crisis, and lacked Spanish-speaking staff in his heavily hispanic district.

According to John Connolly, president of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, the corporation “records hundreds of air shifts in remote locations, splices in music, adds generic recorded calls from listeners, often from other markets, and passes the result off as live, local programming. The end result [is] no local flavor, no local input, no local jobs, no local coverage and no local connection.”

In a phone interview after the hearing, Kim Bryant, the Clear Channel general manager for the Salinas/Monterey area, said that “there are a lot of misunderstandings and misrepresentations about Clear Channel and localism. Because I have six stations, I can run the high school football game on an AM station in a way that an independent couldn’t afford to do, because it costs money. Consolidation is positive for the community and for me.”

Bryant said that while her stations bring “local political people in every single week to talk about the issues,” she confirmed that “we don’t highlight local artists or play them as part of a rotation. But we do things throughout the year that promote the local bands.”

Future uncertain

Adelstein promised that he and his fellow commissioners would bring the audience’s concerns to back Washington, D.C., and “try to integrate them into the rules.”

But the FCC’s next steps are uncertain.

According to Abernathy, the commission is consulting with the Department of Justice on whether to make a September deadline to appeal the Third Circuit Court’s ruling on media ownership.

If there is no appeal, the rulemaking process will begin anew, albeit informed by “the guidance the court just sent us,” she said.

This would include new hearings on ownership, she said, in addition to those already in progress on localism.

Abernathy said that media ownership and community service are related but distinct issues, and may require separate sets of rules.

“You could have a locally owned guy who isn’t doing a good job, and a network that is, and vice versa,” she said.

In an email, the FCC’s Copps wrote that he considers “localism and media consolidation to be inextricably intertwined. When owners are members of a local community they can serve local interests better than when corporations hundreds of miles away are pulling the strings.”

Ultimately, the protracted public hearing process could delay new rules until after the November election.

The Monterey localism event was the fourth in a national series that has so far touched down in North Carolina, South Dakota and Texas. The final two will be in Maine and Washington, D.C. No dates have yet been set.

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