When the FCC Came to Town

Last Friday, the Federal Communications Commission came to town. For an event that by its very definition is mundane -- a public hearing on a proposed federal regulatory rulemaking -- it was an extraordinary event, for several reasons.

The first, of course, was that there was a public hearing at all, let alone in Seattle, Washington, 3,000 miles from Washington, D.C. But then, it's no ordinary rulemaking, either. When FCC Commissioner Michael Powell (Colin's son) was appointed by Pres. Bush as FCC Chairman two years ago, and Republican appointees assumed three of the five commissioner positions, Powell took on as a top priority the radical deregulation of what few limits remain -- after 20 years of such initiatives -- on the ability of large corporations to control the nation's airwaves.

Two decades ago, a company could own only 14 radio stations (seven AM, seven FM) in the country, no more than seven TV stations, and no more than one of each in a single market. New radio/TV combinations were prohibited, and the FCC actively favored minority applicants for new licenses.

After several rounds of deregulation, most of that is now history, and the result has been a radical realignment of the broadcast industry; after the last round -- the Telecommunications Act of 1996, perhaps the single greatest act of corporate welfare in Congressional history -- the resulting buying frenzy left the country's largest broadcaster, Clear Channel Communications, with over 1,200 radio stations as well as control of most of the country's concert promotion and a big chunk of its billboards.

However, bans on companies owning both daily newspapers and radio or TV stations in one market remain; so do restrictions that limit networks' ability to buy new stations, especially in major markets, or to buy each other. Those bans were Powell's particular targets when, last fall, he ordered a comprehensive review of the FCC's ownership regulations. There were to be no public hearings, a brief public comment period, and then the Republican majority would ram the measure home. Trade publications were giddily predicting a big, fat gift in time for the holidays.

But a funny thing happened: the public. Lone dissenting commissioner Michael Copps (the fifth seat was at the time vacant) raised a ruckus, and so did public interest groups, alternative media activists, and, eventually, Democratic legislators. A public hearing was scheduled; a January Senate Commerce Committee hearing roasted all five commissioners. When a record 2,200 public comments were filed by the end of the year, the comment period was extended. And then Copps used public pressure to force Powell to allow further public testimony and hearings. The first was held in nearby Richmond VA (120 miles from Washington); when Copps protested that most of the country had still not had an opportunity to be heard, two more were scheduled. Last week, those were held, too: in Durham, North Carolina, and here in Seattle.

Of course, of the five Commissioners, only the two Democratic appointees -- Copps and the newest commissioner, Jonathan Adelstein -- showed up. But the fact that such a public hearing was even being held was extraordinary. And so was what happened.

Extraordinary is not to be confused with surprising. It was very much the dog and pony show, where morning panels of supportive broadcasters and opposing music industry figures, unions, and media advocates debated the measure, and public comments were taken in the afternoon. The arguments, over the need for media diversity and evils of consolidation vs. the needs of commercial broadcasters to compete with other media technologies, were all familiar.

But what Copps and Adelstein heard and recorded only added fuel to the very healthy fire being set under Powell and his omnibus media ownership review. This was not the usual size, composition, or decibel level of a normal FCC public hearing. The auditorium at the University of Washington was packed with critics of corporate media and its increasing stranglehold on the news we read, the music we hear, and the culture we live in.

Defenders of media diversity are largely regarding this battle as a last stand -- and they're winning. One of the other two Republican commissioners, Kevin Martin, broke with Powell and created a 3-2 majority with Copps and Adelstein on a key telecommunications industry vote last month; Martin's "mutiny" has FCC and broadcast industry insiders abuzz that he might also break with Powell on the ownership initiative. Already, Congressional and public pressure has made it increasingly likely that of the six original planks of Powell's deregulation plan, only a watered-down version of the newspaper cross-ownership piece will survive.

None of this would have happened without public activism. And that, in the end, was the most extraordinary part of Friday's dog and pony show -- the audience. When activists sounded the alarm over the proposed Telecommunications Act in 1996 -- correctly predicting the disaster it would create -- few people cared. Michael Powell's deregulatory corporate gift, once considered a slam-dunk to be enacted, has already been significantly impeded by a media democracy movement that did not exist five years ago.

That movement has done more than oppose corporate media -- it has produced a vibrant alternative. One of the projects inspired by organizing for 1999's protests at the Seattle meeting of the World Trade Organization was an "Independent Media Center" to coordinate a web site and production of independent video, radio broadcasts, articles, photos, and zines concerning the event. The WTO left town, but the Seattle IMC stayed, and in only three years has spawned over 90 local IMC's in cities and countries on six continents. Alternative web sites -- like WorkingForChange.com -- have become significant sources of news for many Americans, and independent media activists have thousands of sites of their own. The cable access TV movement is booming, and so is a movement of independent radio producers.

As big corporations snap up stations and produce news that is ever more conservative -- or irrelevant, or they abolish local news entirely -- and as music stations put the same six formats and 50 artists on thousands of outlets, media activists, frequently using new or newly affordable technology, have rushed to fill the void. The dogs and ponies at last Friday's FCC hearing weren't just protesting a further erosion of media diversity and competition; increasingly, they are the competition. And what they're producing is frequently better.

Geov Parrish is a columnist at WorkingForChange.com.

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