Can You Hear Them? FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein Wants To Hear More Voices On The Radio (12/03/07)
By Editor-In-Chief Joe Howard
His positions on the hot-button questions may rankle some in the radio industry, but that hasnít stopped FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein from taking a firm stance on controversial issues such as media consolidation, minority ownership, low-power FM radio, and localism. He believes that ownership consolidation in radio has diminished the number of independent voices in the industry, and he has supported a variety of ideas ó including dropping the third-adjacent channel protections that LPFM stations must provide to full-power broadcasters, and imposing specific public-interest obligations on digital radio stations ó as possible solutions.
On the latter, Adelsteinís has endorsed encouraging ó but not requiring ó digital radio broadcasters to lease their side channels to minority groups, a move he believes could open the airwaves to voices not currently being heard. While his effort to have such language added to the digital radio rules was unsuccessful, Adelstein believes the notion still has merit. ďWe have sudden new opportunities for new broadcast streams,Ē he says. ďBut does that alone bring diversity if the same owners control them, and thereís no willingness to work with new voices ó minorities and women and others ó who canít get their unique voices heard on the airwaves? There should be ways to encourage that.Ē
Adelstein also backs a congressional effort currently under way to undo the third-adjacent channel protections for LPFM, and notes that an FCC-commissioned study conducted by the Mitre Corporation determined that sufficient proof does not exist to support such protection. ďThat study showed there arenít interference problems, and I donít think the evidence to the contrary has been at all convincing,Ē he says. ďIf there are interference problems, we shouldnít place LPFM stations and we should do thorough evaluation before any of these stations are licensed. But, in general, I donít think this limitation is necessary to prevent harmful interference. Thatís what our engineers believe, and thatís what the study showed.Ē Adelstein adds, ďIf people want to present more objective studies, Iím certainly open to seeing them, but so far we havenít seen the Mitre Corporation study convincingly contradicted.Ē
Adelstein is also hopeful that the agencyís ongoing proceeding on localism will lead to meaningful reforms. ďItís time to implement solutions and figure out what the FCC can do within its authority to require more accountability, more localism, and more responsiveness to the concerns of the local communities to which these radio stations are licensed.Ē
RADIOINK: Now that the FCC has completed six open hearings to gather public input, what are your goals for the localism proceeding?
JONATHAN ADELSTEIN: We need to take what we learned on the road and actually implement improvements in the way the media responds to the concerns of local broadcasters. Weíve heard across the country concerns about a lack of localism, and the homogeneous quality of radio. As people travel across the country, they hear the same thing on the radio. People are frustrated with the loss of the ability of local artists to get heard on the air, the loss of local news, investigative reporting by radio stations. What are we going to do about it? We have this exhaustive record of people complaining all across the country, but itís not enough to report that there is a problem. Now itís time to try and implement solutions and figure out what the FCC can do within its authority to require more accountability, require more localism, and require more responsiveness to the concerns of the local communities to which these radio stations are licensed.
RI: Does that mean stricter or more precise public interest obligations?
JA: Public interest obligations are a big part of it. We have an open proceeding right now on public interest obligations for digital broadcasters, and I think there could be some need for a localism requirement. Broadcasters are getting two or three channels where before they had one, and yet they do no local content on the new channels. It doesnít make a lot of sense.
RI: HD Radio is still a very nascent technology. Are additional regulations necessary, or do broadcasters just need more time to figure out how best to utilize those channels?
JA: It will take time. HD Radio doesnít yet have the revenue stream to support a lot of local programming. But we have to think about how it will in the long run, and how the main station might have additional responsibilities given the new opportunities of HD Radio ó and just in general ó to assure more responsiveness. We are hearing concerns all across the country, and these arenít isolated issues; theyíre consistent, theyíre loud, and theyíre reflected in some of the problems that the industry is having more broadly. People arenít leaving radio just because they have other options; theyíre leaving radio because it isnít exciting them as much as it used to. There are more new competitive options, but the complaints we hear, and even when I talk to friends about it, is that somehow the life or vitality of much of radio has seemed to drain out and become more corporatized, more homogenized, and less linked to the local communities.
RI: Specifically, what are the complaints?
JA: They are tired of the repetition, tired of the lack of local flavor, and theyíre looking for more dynamic programming. Really, thereís not a lot that the government can do about those subtleties Ė those are issues radio has to come to grips with itself Ė but one thing we need to study is the effect of consolidation on the vitality of radio. People out in the countryside are telling us that they see a link between consolidation and the loss of radioís vitality, and they give examples. We often get former industry veterans talking about the way it used to be, and the way it is now. Theyíre the ones who show up when the FCC comes to town; they get out of their houses and get down to the hearing, wherever it might be, to share their stories. And they are very depressing stories; there are a lot of ex-employees because so many radio jobs have been lost. We also go out and see young people who want to get into this field, who are in schools of communications or working at their local college radio station, and wonder if there is a future for them in this field. There arenít as many jobs as there used to be; one of the effects of consolidation is that theyíve squeezed out those jobs. In some ways it may be a good thing because it helps the bottom line and helps radio survive, but on the other hand it certainly seems to take out some of the freshness and new ideas that might come from new blood. As things get computerized and syndicated and national, thereís less need for people on the ground who are part of the community, who have that link to the community that was so important in the history of radio.
RI: The commission is reviewing its local radio ownership limits. Would tightening or changing those limits address these concerns?
JA: Itís something that a lot of people have called for at these hearings, but itís not something that I think is on the table here. Itís not even something that is being considered.
RI: Tightening the limits isnít even on the table?
JA: I havenít heard any discussion about doing that from the chairmanís office or the bureau.
RI: Would you support it?
JA: I donít know. We have to look at this in a comprehensive way. I want to see what other changes are being made and look at the overall picture.
RI: The Arbitron-based radio market definition rules that have been in place for several years were intended to curtail market consolidation. How do you feel about their effectiveness?
JA: It seemed like a rational way to look at things. Some places allow more consolidation and some places less. But I always get a little concerned when we use a private-sector definition that can change, and we still havenít established the rules for the non-Arbitron markets, which is a real problem. We need to let people know whatís going on.
RI: Where is that?
JA: Iím hopeful that is something we can address as part of the media ownership review. Itís something that certainly deserves, after a long hiatus, to be addressed so everybody knows what the rules of the vote are and they can proceed accordingly.
RI: The level of minority ownership in radio is an issue that youíve spoken about improving. When the FCC adopted its digital radio rules, you lamented that the FCC didnít including language encouraging broadcasters to lease time on digital side channels to minority groups. Is it the FCCís place to make business suggestions like that to licensees?
JA: The Communications Act calls for service of the public interest, which weíve traditionally defined as diversity. Here, we have sudden new opportunities for new broadcast streams. But does that alone bring diversity if the same owners control them, and thereís no willingness to work with new voices ó minorities and women and others who canít get their unique voices heard on the airwaves? There should be ways to encourage that. Ownership of radio stations among women and minorities is abysmally low; weíve done virtually nothing to try to turn that situation around. Consolidation has raised the value of these outlets, and made it more difficult for new entrants to get a foothold, particularly with the difficulty getting access to capital. Itís also difficult sometimes for the owner of a smaller single station ó which minorities and women tend to be ó to compete with a consolidated entity that has a large market share of the advertising. Thatís a serious structural problem that we need to deal with.
When the FCC hosted a public hearing on ownership in Chicago, WBLN was a great example of how important it is for minorities to own stations. That African American-owned station is serving the African American community in ways that nobody else can. Their station has a deal with Clear Channel, which has been very beneficial. They use a stronger signal from a Clear Channel facility, I think on 1690 AM, that reaches more people and has a stronger penetration than would otherwise be possible with WBLNís original license. It can also broadcast during more hours. That kind of arrangement is something we want to encourage and commend, because itís a wonderful arrangement. Thereís a buyout option at the end of the lease, but can that minority-owned station ultimately control its own fate by being able to buy that better facility? That would be a wonderful thing. This is a rare example, but one that we should emulate.
RI: Is this lack of minority ownership more of a business reality or regulatory problem?
JA: Itís both. I think a lot of it is a business problem. Youíre talking about an expensive business to be in, one that has limited opportunities because of the lack of stations that are available, but it is also a government problem because the government creates the licenses; thereís only so much space on the dial, and we canít squeeze more in, so the prices have been going up, up, up. People talk about problems of the radio industry, but the stations arenít getting any cheaper, theyíre getting more expensive. Nobodyís coming back here and asking to turn their licenses back in, saying ďOh, this was just too tough for us.Ē So what can we do to ensure that some of those get sprinkled to people who look like the communities theyíre serving? Chicago is 2/3 people of color, and they own about 5 percent of the radio stations. There is something seriously out of whack.
RI: Can low-power FM stations help to address this need?
JA: Low-power FM stations can fill in the gap and itís a very important addition, but it canít make up for the loss of ownership of full-power stations. There are real limitations because of congressionally imposed limits on our ability to license new low-power FM stations.
RI: Youíve been supportive of dropping the third adjacent channel projections that LPFM stations must afford full-power stations. Broadcasters are concerned that if those protections were dropped and more LPFMs begin broadcasting, it will lead to increased interference with full-power stations.
JA: We certainly want to avoid interference concerns. Thatís why the FCC hired the Mitre Corporation to conduct a study on this issue. That study showed that there arenít interference problems, and I donít think the evidence to the contrary has been at all convincing. If there are interference problems, we shouldnít place LPFM stations and we should do thorough evaluation before any of these stations are licensed. But in general I donít think this limitation is necessary to prevent harmful interference. Thatís what our engineers believe, and thatís what the study showed. If people want to present more objective studies, Iím certainly open to seeing them, but so far we havenít seen the Mitre Corporation study convincingly contradicted.
RI: There is talk in the industry that HD side channel power limits should be increased. Is any consideration being given to amending the power limits on HD radio side channels?
JA: Of course we want to find out how much we can do without causing interference to the existing station or to adjacent stations. I think we will try to find ways to maximize the power levels without running up against creating harmful interference.
RI: This year the FCC reached a $12.5 million settlement with several broadcasters over allegations of payola. Youíve been very outspoken about this issue. Were you satisfied with the settlement and the reforms that the broadcasters adopted?
JA: I think it was a good and a fair settlement. Somebody complained at the last local hearing that Elliot Spitzer got $36 million and we only got $12 million, but if you look at the context of our finding authority, that was the second largest fine in the history of American broadcasting, so it was pretty big by FCC standards. It sent a pretty strong message, and every executive I talk to is very serious about stamping it out and making sure it doesnít happen in their networks. To the degree there is payola, it does place merit with money and it hurts the long-term viability of the radio industry. It might be a short-term boost for some people or some companies, but it doesnít help when you are programming based on that rather than what the audience really wants to hear. Sometimes, of course, stations say weíre gonna play this anyway, we might as well get paid for it, but thatís just not the way the law is set up. Iím very pleased that we all worked together on a bipartisan basis to say that weíre going to enforce the law strictly. We do have peopleís attention, and the problem has hopefully been addressed. I think basically it was a pretty good deal, and it was a good deal for consumers.
RI: Are there any more investigations pending?
JA: Weíre still looking at some of the smaller station groups and some of the other complaints that are pending and trying to see if we canít reach agreements with the remaining stations against which there are allegations. There are some other investigations going on; anything that comes our way, weíre exploring. We occasionally get calls from people who explain itís gone deeper underground, and that there are still things going on that are inappropriate, but I donít think weíre going to be seeing e-mail exchanges again like we did. But if thatís our only accomplishment, thatís not enough. We hopefully are really pushing this to the fringes and making it something that is not a regular practice. Hopefully station management is doing the same thing. The big ones now have procedures in place to ensure that they catch problems. But there are always going to be people committing crimes; you can outlaw theft, but that doesnít mean people arenít going to steal. Stations can put policies in place, but that doesnít mean some employees wonít violate those policies. But there are now much better procedures in place to monitor it, and a higher level of corporate awareness because of our strong enforcement actions.
RI: Indecency was a hot topic a few years ago, but has since quieted. Is the FCC receiving as many complaints, or do you feel that the radio industry has cleaned up its game?
JA: Weíre getting fewer complaints. When I got here there was very little enforcement. We stepped up enforcement, and we got peopleís attention. Now the danger is we might go too far, overstep our authority, and actually get reversed by the courts. So we have to be very careful about how we do it. I was at a recent hearing where there were some incredible lyrics from Urban radio that seemed to be pretty shocking. We need to look at that and ensure that the standards are being held in all the different formats.
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