Powell Pledges to Facilitate More Low-Power Stations
August 21, 2003
By Frank Ahrens
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael K. Powell fought back yesterday against critics who say he doesn't care about local broadcasting by taking steps to speed the rollout of more community radio stations and forming a task force to study local programming.
Powell has been pilloried by organizations and lawmakers since he pushed through modifications to the FCC's media ownership rules on June 2, some of which allow more consolidation by media goliaths, such as Viacom Inc. Critics say the new rules would hurt local broadcasting by allowing big companies to buy more television stations and replace local content with network shows.
In response, Powell said yesterday that the FCC would accelerate the licensing process for low-power FM radio stations. These tiny, non-commercial broadcasters were sanctioned by the agency in 2000 and serve areas of several blocks up to a few miles. They are designed to transmit educational, health-related and other local programming, focusing on minority and low-income areas.
In addition, Powell said the agency would establish a task force that would study local media and hold a series of public hearings. As part of the task force's work, the FCC would issue a "notice of inquiry" on the subject; such a notice is a formal agency proceeding designed to seek comment on the agency's rules. The task force will use the process to make recommendations on local media to commissioners, the FCC said.
Though Powell did not offer many details, he said the task force would be charged with, among other things, making sure that local television stations are meeting their FCC requirements to broadcast public-interest programming. The television station license-renewal process has drawn criticism from those who believe the FCC does little to enforce the mandate.
In the months before the June 2 adoption of the new media rules, the FCC received hundreds of thousands of e-mails and postcards from individuals and groups expressing concern about further media consolidation and urging the FCC not to proceed with relaxing the rules.
"Localism is at the core of these concerns," Powell said yesterday, "and we are going to tackle it head on."
Powell interpreted consumers as being worried that their local television and radio stations are covering less local news and doing less public-interest programming and are less responsive to local issues. To some degree, Powell agrees.
Powell has separated the ownership rules from the debate over local media; he says ownership is about concentration and antitrust issues while localism is about content. Opponents disagree, saying the two are linked. They have asked Powell to stay the new rules, which he refuses to do.
"If we stay the rules, the media marketplace is destabilized," he said. He called the media ownership rules a "very blunt and poor tool" for ensuring localism.
"I don't believe you have to have an owner who lives down the street to be responsive to local consumers," Powell said.
Several members in both houses of Congress disagree and are seeking to roll back some or all of the FCC's new rules, specifically targeting the "ownership cap," a rule that allows networks to own a group of stations reaching 45 percent of the national audience, up from 35 percent.
Congress is in recess and is due to take up the ownership legislation when it returns on Sept. 3; the new media rules are scheduled to take effect the next day.
Powell appeared alone at yesterday's announcement, unaccompanied by his four fellow commissioners, who were informed of the plans but not consulted on them. The event was broadcast live on C-SPAN and Powell said he had talked to several lawmakers, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), before making yesterday's announcement.
Reaction to Powell's proposals was generally unfavorable.
Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) introduced a little-used "resolution of disapproval" last month to overturn all of the June 2 rules. Nothing in Powell's proposal persuaded him to remove the resolution, he said by phone yesterday while traveling in his home state.
He called Powell's assertion that localism may not directly be related to ownership "nonsense."
"Localism has everything to do with the concentration of ownership," said Dorgan, who added that he expected the introduction of a Senate appropriations rider that would deny the FCC funding to implement the new rules. Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.) attached a similar rider to the spending bill that passed the House last month.
Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, who has been supportive of Powell, lauded his announcement yesterday, but warned the FCC to "move cautiously" on licensing more low-power FM stations, for fear they will interfere with full-power stations.
"Chairman Powell, as always, appears very sincere about doing the right thing," said Tauzin spokesman Ken Johnson. "But politically, this new initiative is not going to change the debate in Congress over the ownership cap."
Some in the House predicted that opponents could argue that Powell's announcement represents a tacit admission that the ownership rules are flawed and should be rolled back until the FCC completes its localism studies.
FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps, one of the commission's two Democrats who voted against the three commission Republicans on June 2, said Powell's proposal "is a day late and a dollar short."
Copps has pushed for the commission to stay the rules, fearing their implementation will unleash "a rash of mergers," which Powell disagrees with.
"We should have vetted these issues before we voted," Copps said in a statement. "Instead, we voted; now, we are going to vet. This is a policy of 'Ready, fire, aim!' "