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FCC to Hear Sad Songs

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NEW YORK With several country music stars committed to testify before the Federal Communications Commission during next week's field hearing in Nashville on media ownership, the agency might feel as if it's on the Grand Ole Opry instead of the campus of Belmont University.

Porter Wagoner, George Jones, Dobie Gray, Naomi Judd and Craig Wiseman are among the music impresarios that have tentatively agreed to testify Monday, according to entertainment industry officials.

Musicians, songwriters, actors and others who owe much of their livelihood to radio and television fear that allowing the ownership universe to contract will undercut their ability to get airplay, said Rick Carnes, president of the Songwriters Guild of America.

"The commission just keeps allowing expanding ownership limits in local markets, where one person or company can pretty much own everything," said Carnes, who also plans to testify. "If there are three country stations in a market, and they get bought out and merged into one, that really hurts us."

The hearing is the second in a series the FCC is conducting on the issue.

In June, the commission reopened the hotly disputed issue of ownership limits, including the number of radio and television stations that one owner can have and restrictions on cross-ownership between newspapers and broadcasters.

Former FCC chairman Michael Powell pushed through loosened rules in 2003, but the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia threw them out on grounds that the FCC compiled an insufficient record to justify them.

The 2003 changes would have let one corporation own—in a single community—up to three TV stations, eight radio stations, the cable system, the only daily newspaper and the biggest Internet provider, according to Democratic FCC commissioners who opposed the plan.

One regulation to raise a single company's audience-reach ceiling to 45 percent of U.S. households, instead of 35 percent, was taken off the table that year when Congress set the audience-reach ceiling at 39 percent by statute.

Media companies contend that existing ownership rules were outmoded in a media landscape that has been altered substantially by cable TV, satellite broadcasts and the Internet. Critics disagree, arguing that easing restrictions likely will lead to a wave of mergers, handing a few giant media companies control of what the public sees, hears and reads.