News Media
The FCC must stop shutting down microradio stations
By K�llia Ramares
Online Journal Associate Editor

Nov 8, 2006, 01:20

On October 27, I went to an informal FCC hearing on media consolidation. It was held at the Oakland Marriott as part of the California NAACP convention. It was informal because only two of the five commissioners�Michael J. Copps and Jonathan S. Adelstein--the Democrats�were present. So it wasn�t an official hearing and wasn�t mentioned on the FCC web site.

Media consolidation is an important, often under-the-radar, issue for people who are concerned with preserving and strengthening democracy. The FCC is considering rule changes that will make it even easier for media conglomerates to own multiple media outlets in one market than The Telecommunications Act of 1996 did. And that says a lot. Since the Telecom Act came into effect, Clear Channel Communications, for example, has come to own seven radio stations in San Francisco, and three in San Jose, just 50 miles away.

Media consolidation allows large corporations, such as Clear Channel and the Tribune Company, to own radio and TV stations�both broadcast and cable--newspapers, news and entertainment web sites, billboards, performance venues, and even the performing entities themselves. (The Tribune Company owns the Chicago Cubs baseball team). Thus it is possible for a media conglomerate that does not like the politics of particular performers to strike them from the playlists of their stations, even though their music fits the station�s format. Just ask the Dixie Chicks, who are critics of George W. Bush. Conglomerates also can put a major crimp in music sales by politically disfavored performers by refusing to promote their latest CD release on company-owned billboards, show their videos on TV, or performing in certain venues. Just ask antiwar artists Michael Franti of the hip-hop group Spearhead or folk singer Ani DiFranco.

When a media conglomerate can own many outlets in one market, it can manipulate political content in other ways. For example, more than one speaker at the hearing complained about the fact that Clear Channel owned AM stations that promoted right-wing, racist, hate speech, while at the same time owning urban hip-hop stations in the same market. Hip-hop formats appeal to young African-Americans. And the speakers said that on the hip-hop stations, Clear Channel promoted violent, hypersexualized hip-hop, rather than the socially conscious styles of that genre, and reduced public affairs programming relevant to urban youth of color.

Speakers also complained to the two FCC commissioners about lack of minority media ownership, lack of quality programming for children, and the lack of localism and its attendant loss of local jobs. This latter phenomenon is the product of voice-tracking and the use of computers to run several stations out of one room. In looking for work in radio on the site, I have sometimes seen classified ads for voice-tracking jobs and ads for other kinds of media work that proclaimed such things as six stations being run out of one room. One man at the hearing played a short excerpt from a cassette tape he said was a recording of two stations running on the air simultaneously. Apparently there was no one in the room where the two computers running these stations were located, the man had tried to call to alert someone of the problem and got no answer. He later gave the tape to the commissioners.

The people who favor media consolidation claim that the Internet more than offsets whatever reduction in diversity might occur by the consolidation of the over-the-air broadcast outlets. But that is not really true. First of all, the Internet is being dominated by the large corporate media. Just turn on your computer and you will see, and perhaps use, the web sites of major �free� and cable networks (e.g. ABC or ESPN), large newspapers (e.g. New York Times, L.A. Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post), or large corporate portals such as Google and Yahoo. In fact, Google has joined the American lexicon: �I Googled it and came up with this.� Additionally, Congress wants to get rid of �Net Neutrality� and large corporations such as AT&T and Comcast want to own the �Net. This would basically drive up the costs of access and drive Internet service providers (ISPs) out of business. One speaker at the hearing mentioned that there had once been over 8,000 ISPs in the US and now we are down to 2,000. While that still sounds like a lot of ISPs, these statistics represent a 75 percent reduction in the number of available ISPs.

Secondly, Internet access is already much more expensive than a newspaper subscription, an AM-FM radio or a small TV set. One must have an Internet capable computer, and as content gets more technologically sophisticated, it must be a computer and operating system capable of running the latest software fast enough. Then there is the cost of the Internet access itself, and possibly the cost of content.

Thirdly, while it is true that the Internet provides publication space for thousands, if not millions of music, news, and public affairs producers from across the political, racial and age spectra, it is easy for independent producers such as myself (Radio Internet Story Exchange) to be lost in the crowd. We need local media to let our communities know that we exist.

Although a couple of FCC commissioners are listening to people complain about the consequences of a lack of media diversity and localism, the FCC is conducting armed seizures of the transmitting equipment of microradio operators throughout the nation. When I finally got my turn to speak at the hearing, after Pacifica radio station KPFA-FM, where I am a news tech and occasional public affairs producer, shut down its live coverage an hour early, and after one of the two commissioners had stepped out of the room, I said that I would believe that the FCC would really do something about media consolidation when it stopped raiding these stations run by youth, by minorities and by the people outside the political viewpoints represented by the large corporate media.

I have done stories about some of these stations and have had some of my R.I.S.E. public affairs programs run by a few of them. These stations are truly local and their local quality has enabled them to step in during emergencies to provide important local information when voice-tracked corporate stations, pretending to be local, could not.

Limits on media ownership in a single market would help spread media ownership throughout a community. But if indeed the people own the airwaves as a commons�something that I think is a myth these days� the government has to put down the literal and figurative guns it points at microbroadcasters. The government needs to expand the Low-Power FM (LPFM) program to the bounds of technical feasibility rather than greatly limit it to accommodate the anti-competitive wishes of the National Association of Broadcasters and NPR.

This means ending the armed raids and dropping the �bad broadcaster� rule that currently prohibits microradio broadcasters who operated without a license from getting licenses under the new program. Where choices among potential broadcasters in an area must be made because of technical considerations, the more local group should be favored over the corporate conglomerate. Pretend localization through voice-tracking should be disallowed. This way, underrepresented groups can afford to own media, and local music, news, media employment and emergency service can be developed. This would not mean that there is no room for international or national music or news, but that localities would decide for themselves what they wanted, instead of being homogenized by corporate programming.

Of course, this means that local entities have to commit to the idea of local media workers being able to make sustainable livings at what they do. One reason media consolidation has been successful is that it is expensive to produce local news or to cover live cultural events. It�s cheaper for the folks who own the equipment to lay off the local talent, take on the corporation�s homogenized programming and eventually sell their studios and transmitters to a media conglomerate for a tidy personal profit. This has to stop. So does the expectation that programmers will be volunteers. Landlords want rent and grocers, even at the farmers� market, want cash for their fruits and vegetables from media workers, just as they want it from people engaged in other types of work.

But that�s another story. The first step to building diverse, local, democratic media is for the FCC to end its war of words, warrants and weapons against microradio stations.

More info on the FCC vs Microradio:

Radio for People, Not Profit by Jeremy Smith and Howard Rosenfeld/Dollars and Sense, May-June 1999

The Bay Area is the capital of pirate radio stations -- low-power, unlicensed stops on the FM dial by James Sullivan/SF Chronicle, Oct 21, 2003.

Confronting the FCC and Defending Your Micropower Station from Being Shut Down by Stephen Dunifer/Free Radio Berkeley

Prometheus Radio Project

Congress and Low Power FM (The MITRE Report Findings) by The Media Access Project

 2006 K�llia Ramares. For fair use only.

The web site of journalist K�llia Ramares of Oakland, Calif., is Radio Internet Story Exchange. She can be reached at

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