Archive | September, 2003

Local Newspaper Shows Utter Ignorance and Shallow Reporting on Media Ownership Rules and Effects

Our local daily student newspaper, the Daily Illini, ran an utterly bland, shallow and barely informed article attempting to assess what affect the FCC’s new ownership rules might have on our local media scene. The title is: “Media ownership in C-U not likely to chance with FCC rules.”

And, if the article actually had any data to back up that conclusion, then maybe I’d be less critical. But, in typical “he-said, she-said” journalism fashion, the closest that the author comes to data are quotes from local media owners and managers, put in counterpoint to local media scholar Robert McChesney and a rep from his media reform organization, Free Press.

And, maybe even that would be fine if any of the persons quoted said anything remotely specific about the Champaign-Urbana local media. But the closest thing to a comment made about our local media is:

By being able to expand, [WCIA-TV vice president and general manager Russ] Hamilton added, the media market would improve because money could be used to give a station such as UPN the ability to compete with NBC or ABC. …

“I haven’t thought about (the FCC ruling) too much,” said Mike Hale, assistant general manager at News-Gazette Inc. owned WDWS-AM and WHMS-FM radio stations.

That hardly qualifies as a sound argument that the FCC’s new rules would leave Champaign-Urbana unscathed.

Just a little bit of background research would reveal that two local TV owners, Nexstar (WCIA, Ch 3 & WCFN Ch. 49) and Sinclair (WICD, Ch 15), both filed comments with the FCC urging that the Commisssion relax the local TV ownership rules in order to allow duopolies and triopolies, and to allow the cross-ownership of newspapers and TV stations in the same market.

Clearly, these two owners of our local media–especially Sinclair, which pillories the FCC’s existing ownership rules in its comments–are just itching to buy up more local TV stations, and maybe a newspaper. Such co-ownership would allow them to combine news operations across stations and across media, greatly reducing the cost of doing news for them, while enormously reducing the amount of diversity in local journalism.

As written, the FCC’s new media ownership rules would be likely to allow both mutliple TV station ownership and TV – newspaper cross-ownership to happen in Champaign-Urbana.

I’d call those some pretty damn major changes.

While it is true that the FCC’s new rules would not change how many radio stations a single owner could have in our local market, they would allow our local TV owners to get into the local radio business. On top of combining news operations (which is not so siginficant if only because most radio stations don’t do news anymore) local TV and radio combinations would allow owners to package advertising in such a way as to roundly underprice competitors that don’t own combinations, possibly running the few locally based media owners right out of business.

All it takes to find this stuff out is making more than four phone calls. It’s called doing research, and it’s disheartening to see that even student journalists don’t seem to have the time or interest to bother. Especially since this story is hardly breaking news, given that the rules passed on June 2 and the Senate resolution to overturn them passed a week ago, there’s should be no deadline excuse for not spending a little more time and effort to get some facts.

For some actual data and thoughtful conclusions about how the FCC’s new rules would affect local media in Champaign-Urbana, see an article I wrote back in June for the Urbana-Champaign IMC. Even if you’re not from Central Illinois, I hope the article provides an example of how you might go about seeing how FCC rules will affect your local media.

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Another Kind of Low-Power Station Hogging Radio Spectrum

As I covered in the news headlines for Friday’s radioshow, the industry journal Radio World is paying some attention to the mountain of 13,000 applications made for FM translator stations during a short application window.

Translator stations are low-power FM stations that can only retransmit the signal of a full-power station — they are forbidden from originating any programming (save emergency notices). What’s so scandalous about translators is that they are allowed to be sandwiched on the dial much closer together and to full-power stations than regular low-power FM stations that originate their own programming.

Recall that back in 2000, Congress intervened in the FCC’s implementation of LPFM to declare that the spacing standards set by the FCC — which basically mirrored the standards for translators — were a horrible interference threat. Thus Congress set the spacing requirements for LPFM stations to be the same as full-power stations operating at 10 – 1000x times the power, and then mandated the FCC commission an independent study on the interference effects of LPFM stations.

Of course, Congress didn’t pay any attention to translators which differ from LPFM stations only in what they broadcast — there’s no technical difference. So translator stations could continue to be squeezed onto the dial, supposed interference be damned.

RW reports that some radio engineers are upset about the FCC processing so many translator applications so quickly because they’re afraid they don’t have sufficient time to see if the new stations will interfere with the existing full-power stations that they work for. However, the interference claims don’t ruffle me, since for both translators and LPFM stations it’s largely a red herring, and has since been disproven by the Congressionally mandated Mitre report.

What’s troubling is that the translator licensing window amounts to an enormous spectrum giveaway to stations that will not come even close to serving their local communities as well as LPFM stations that must originate at least 8 hours a day of local programming by FCC rules.

On top of that, the nation’s biggest holders of translator licenses are enormous right-wing Christian radio networks that subsist almost entirely on hundreds of these low-power translator stations. Commercial stations can only have translators to fill in gaps in their local coverage, while these godcasters slip through as “educational” non-profits which allow them to have translators to rebroadcast stations thousands of miles away.

This perverse twisting of the translator rules allows them to create nationwide radio networks for just a fraction of what it would cost with regular full-power station licenses, and all without having to even pay lipservice to local public service requirements.

Finally, these translators take up valuable spectrum space that could otherwise go to full-service, locally-originated low-power community radio stations. Whereas low-power stations cannot be owned in chains, mandating a level of locally-owned diversity, the godcasters brazenly apply for dozens of stations on multiple frequencies in adjacent towns. In some cases they’re even filing multiple applications for the same frequency in locations just several miles apart.

According to RW, the top two applicants for translator stations are the evagelical Radio Assist Ministry and Edgewater Broadcasting, which approximately filed a combined 4,000 short-form applications. The FCC approved 157 of Radio Assist Ministry’s applications and 97 from Edgewater Broadcasting.

Here in the Central Illinois Area alone, Radio Assist Ministry filed 34 applications for translator stations just within 60 miles of Champaign. In some cases Radio Assist Ministry filed multiple applications for the same frequency in several adjacent towns. Edgewater filed 12 applications, mostly in rural communities, but including 2 each for stations in Rantoul and Danville.

And Congress and the NAB were worried about 100 watt non-commercial, locally-owned community stations making a mess of the FM dial?

There is no clearer example of that fact that communications and media regulation, at root, has much less to do with interference, spectrum integrity and interference than it does with who’s buttering whose bread. These multi-state mega-ministries have more pull than local community broadcasters with Congress, the FCC and the NAB, consistency and fairness be damned.

But this is no condemnation of regulation, nor advocacy for deregulation. The problem is deeper, since “deregulation” is what gets us into this problem in the first place. The problem is the undemocratic policing of the airwaves by agency hacks that owe more to the industry they police than to the public at large. The problem is not regulation, per se, but who makes the regulation, and how they and their cronies stand to gain.

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