July 22 • 01:56 AM

Airwaves and the public interest

August 08, 2007
When I first started broadcasting, the Federal Communications Commission required stations to "broadcast in the public interest, convenience and necessity."

According to Michael J. Copps, an FCC commissioner, "using the public airwaves is a privilege (and) not a right…I fear the FCC has not done enough to stand up for the public interest."

Ever since broadcast deregulation however, Copps says, "Under pressure from media conglomerates previous commissions have eviscerated the (license) renewal process to the point where the commission now all but rubber-stamps a renewal application without any substantive review."

Before the 1980s deregulatory mania took over, the FCC gave license renewals a hard look every three years with specific criteria for making a public interest finding. Today broadcasters pretty do much what they want in their pursuit of profit despite the fact the airwaves still belong to the people. It is no wonder that Commissioner Copps was prone to ask in a recent New York Times piece "Do stations that make so much money using the public airwaves, but so plainly fail to educate viewers on the issues facing them, really deserve to have their renewals rubber-stamped?"

I think not.

Unfortunately the commission has spent more time being concerned with "fleeting expletives" or blurted profanities on television than holding broadcasters accountable to their public interest responsibilities so that now every eight years they get a virtual pass on their license renewal.

Since stations in such markets as New York or LA could easily fetch a half billion dollars or more, it is important that broadcasters be required to provide high quality coverage of local or national issues.

According to Commissioner Copps the FCC considered but never adopted several criteria for license renewal. These included the following:

Did the station show programs on local civic affairs apart from the nightly news reports and set aside airtime for local community groups?

Did the station broadcast political conventions and local as well as national candidate debates?

Did the station devote at least five minutes each night to covering politics in the month before an election?

In a time when station owners may live miles from their stations, what have they done to meet with local community leaders and the public to receive feedback?

I would also like to see the FCC reinstate the fairness doctrine. Along with the concept of equal time the fairness doctrine would require stations to give equal time to minority candidates.

According to Commissioner Copps these issues are even more pressing today. "Broadcasters are making the transition to digital technology that permits them to send several television and radio channels into our homes instead of the single channel they have had up to now," he says.

After reforming the license review process the commission should address how the new digital capacity can be used to increase local programs and improve the generally shoddy coverage of minority and other under served communities.

"New benefits for broadcasters," says Mr. Copps, "should translate into public benefits too." In short the FCC should compel broadcasters to serve the public interest.

Email Eric at

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