Local Radio, TV on FCC Agenda

WASHINGTON, D.C. Federal Communica-
tions Commission Chairman Michael Powell on Wednesday said his agency will begin a formal process aimed at ensuring radio and TV broadcasters serve their local communities.

The initiative, which will likely take a year or more to produce major policy changes, comes amid continuing controversy over the FCC’s June 2 vote to relax broadcast ownership restrictions. Critics say the decision will allow major media companies to grow even larger and overpower smaller players.

Powell acknowledged such criticism, saying he had heard “generalized anxiety about the media.” But he defended the new rules and said they will be implemented as scheduled on September 4.

Powell called ownership laws “blunt and poor tools” for addressing questions of localism, and said a new FCC task force staffed by agency officials will immediately begin work on such issues. Powell the FCC will immediately begin speeding applications for community-based low-power FM radio stations. He offered few other specific proposals. “It’s wide open,” Powell told reporters at a news conference at FCC headquarters in Washington. “I don’t want to foreclose anything.”

FCC officials said the localism task force is expected to develop formal recommendations for consideration by the agency’s politically appointed commissioners within a year.

Powell noted that requirements for holding TV licenses include responsiveness to the community, and singled out for scrutiny the practice of broadcasting from one location but making it seem the transmission comes from other cities. In recent months radio giant Clear Channel Communications has been criticized for such “voice tracking,” while Sinclair Broadcast Group attracted criticism for sending some news from a central studio to TV stations in the 39 markets where it operates.

Critics were quick to discount Powell’s move. “Talking about new rules to protect media localism is merely an effort to divert attention from badly reasoned and badly written ownership rules,” said Mark Cooper, research director for the Consumer Federation of America. “We are certain that the chairman’s actions today will not stop the political firestorm that the FCC rules have created.”

Legislative attempts to override the new FCC mandates are to resume early next month when Congress returns from its summer recess. Last month, the House voted 400-to-21 for a measure that includes a reversal of the FCC’s decision to let national TV networks grow larger.

Other rule changes, also are under assault by lawmakers from both parties, make it easier for a single entity to own two or even three stations in a locality, and ease restrictions on common ownership of daily newspapers and nearby broadcast stations.