Leaving Localism Behind

In the January 7th issue of Broadcasting and Cable, Gene McHugh, general manager of Fox TV station WAGA in Atlanta, is quoted as saying, “We’ve determined that localism is the future for TV stations.” The article reported that WAGA and other Fox TV stations are adding an extra half hour of late night news to their schedules in 2008. More local news, however, may mean little if it is just more of the same sensational journalism and celebrity gossip that dominates both national and local news. Yet, McHugh’s statement does represent a rare admission that stations could be doing more to serve the local public. Not only could they do more, but people are hungry for it. The statement strikes at the heart of the myth that the junk news that is so prevalent is just “giving people what they want.” McHugh recognizes that the citizens of Atlanta and people across the country are desperate not only for more local news, but also for better local news that addresses the critical issues like health care, the economy, safety, and the environment.

Kevin Martin FCC Chairman Kevin Martin

Just two weeks after this article appeared, the Federal Communications Commission took action on a long- overdue localism debate that dates back to the previous chairman, Michael Powell. Unfortunately, the FCC did not come to the same conclusion as Gene McHugh and WAGA. It seems the FCC, whose mission is in part to foster localism, thinks stations are doing just fine. The report, released on January 24th, concludes a proceeding that included six public hearings and thousands of comments from concerned citizens. While the comments submitted and the testimony given overwhelmingly suggest that the American people are dissatisfied with the way their local media are serving their community, the FCC barely acknowledged these complaints in their report.

The report, which consistently emphasizes the opinions of broadcasters and relegates public comments to the footnotes (or ignores them entirely), concludes that stations don’t need to provide more or better local news, they just need to better explain the things they currently offer. Don’t change what you do, just change what you say. To this end, the localism report is paired with a request for comment on a series of ideas that would improve broadcaster-community dialogue, but it’s doubtful that any of these ideas would actually improve localism.

My9 New Jersey citizens reminded WWOR what localism looks like

For example, the FCC is looking for input from communities about whether broadcasters should be required to post notification of their impending license renewal on their Websites. This is an important question because as we saw with the WWOR license challenge which was mounted by New Jersey citizens, a station’s license renewal can be an important moment for communities to organize and review how a broadcaster is doing. Broadcasters are currently required to announce their renewal period on the air. The FCC is also interested in whether stations should be required to have community advisory boards and seeks comment on several approaches regarding how broadcasters can better get community input.

The FCC is also seeking public comment on whether broadcasters should have to have someone in the station at all times. For the people of Minot, North Dakota, this is a life or death issue whose consideration is long overdue. When a train carrying chemicals derailed in Minot, toxic fumes filled the air, killing one person and harming hundreds of others. Many people pointed to the fact that none of the six Clear Channel stations in Minot had a person in the sound booth to interrupt the piped-in imported playlists and warn the public or help inform the community during this emergency. Somewhat relatedly, the FCC also seeks comments on where a station’s studio should be located. Before 1987, a station’s studio had to be located in the community which it served. Currently, however, a studio can be located as far as 25 miles from the outer-range of its signal.

Minot Train Minot train derailment.
Image from http://www.solberglaw.com.

Perhaps the most important item that the FCC is seeking input on is the License Renewal Guideline Process. Over the years, the system for license renewals has been gutted of nearly all public interest obligations. Whereas at one time, a station had to provide a detailed accounting of its public service and had to defend its license every three years, current rules have extended that time frame to every eight years and watered down the reporting requirement dramatically. A station now essentially sends in a postcard that gets a nearly automatic rubberstamp approval. The Commission is seeking input on a new rule that could expedite the renewal of licensees that met clear guidelines for public service and for local programming, and could require full Commission action on those who did not. This carrot-and-stick approach is the only item in the report that might have an immediate and meaningful impact on localism. It is encouraging to see the Commission discussing a better-defined and, in some ways, more strict renewal process. However, this report also clearly outlines the limitations to that discussion as it clearly states the FCC’s opposition to shortening the license renewal period to anything less than 8 years.

It used to be that you could travel around the country and in each region you could hear a unique sound on the radio. As Big Media has tightened its grip on the American airwaves, we have fewer and fewer choices on the dial. The local music that once defined different parts of our country has been replaced by national playlists programmed in focus groups and swayed by big record companies’ payola deals. One Chicago producer has said that local musicians are better off playing the lottery than trying to get on the air in their own home town. The FCC had a chance to promote regional and local arts, culture and economies by requiring stations to play local musicians. However, in this report, the FCC decided to support corporate interests over independent artists.

While they at least considered music and the arts as a part of localism, FCC Chairman Martin has consistently insisted on separating the issues of minority ownership and localism. This report did not address the dismal state of media ownership amongst people of color even though research has shown that these owners consistently serve their local communities better and provide more diverse viewpoints. For communities large and small, female and minority ownership is not just a local issue, but also a localism issue. This report did nothing to answer the call of so many people, from main street America to Capitol Hill, who have called on the FCC to diversify the media. As such, many of the concerns of the public about Big Media’s impact on local communities were left unmentioned and unaddressed.

With this report the FCC would like to close the book on localism, but you still have a chance to make your voice heard. If you want to submit comments on any of the issues above visit http://www.fcc.gov/cgb/ecfs (Docket No. 04-233).

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