Community voices stifled by an accommodating FCC

by Bill Wippel, Seattle Times

Auburn, Bremerton, Burien, Eatonville, Sumner and Renton. At one time residents of these cities could hear about their communities on their own radio station. School-lunch menus, local news, public-service announcements about local charity activities were aired daily. Even lost cats and dogs were announced on the air. No more.

Those community voices have been silenced. And it is not illegal, even though the very fabric of the community has disappeared. The stations are still on the air, but the studios have moved to Seattle or Tacoma. The owners have moved to make more money in a metro location. The local stations certainly did not gross what they do now. It is all about selling spots and not about service. Suburban towns have been disenfranchised by the moves. Even though the broadcast equipment remains near, only a radio tower and transmitter are reminders of past service. And it is repeated all across America.

Which Seattle stations have left the surrounding cities? Just listen to a station identification at the top of the hour. They must include the city of license first. You can hear the station call letters followed by "Bremerton-Seattle" or "Eatonville-Tacoma" or "Sumner-Seattle" or "Mercer Island-Seattle." Federal law requires the city be included in their call letters, but no longer requires the lost city's news or local coverage.

When the licenses were first granted by the Federal Communications Commission, the owners had to promise local public service. In fact, broadcast owners could have their license revoked if they did not have a certain percentage of news and public service devoted locally. And during license renewal — once every three years — they had to prove the numbers in a report. That report was several pages. The broadcaster then had to itemize the station's service to the community. Today, all the owner does is send in a postcard. The renewals are now eight years apart.

Has it helped democracy? Certainly not!

The FCC, in deregulating radio, has allowed this to happen. And if FCC Chairman Kevin Martin gets his way, it will go even further. Seattle shouted a resounding "no" last month to his efforts to allow cross-ownership of broadcast outlets and newspapers in the same city.

Martin certainly did not listen to the folks who testified before him at Town Hall! He continues his campaign to further homogenize broadcast and print journalism. Our community voices are being stifled, strangled and silenced.

While our nation is a republic, we face a real threat to our democracy. Like Hitler burning books before World War II. We will never miss Democracy until it is gone.

While the media landscape has become bleak, there is hope. The U.S. Senate Commerce Committee endorsed bipartisan legislation on Dec. 4 that could derail the FCC's attempt to ease media-ownership restrictions. The bill would postpone an FCC vote scheduled for Tuesday and force the agency to study the media ownership issue further.

"The last thing we need in the world is more concentration in the media," said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., who is one of the bill's chief sponsors. The bill was co-sponsored by Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss. No similar legislation has been introduced in the House.

We can hope that we return the airwaves to the public for the service we deserve. A civically active and knowledgeable public, coupled with politicians like Dorgan and Lott, can go a long way toward bringing local programming back to our communities.

article originally published at .

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey