Save the airwaves for democracy

[Seattle Times editorial]

America's airwaves have been damaged by a series of rule changes the past two decades that have ushered in an era of bland commercial radio and television.

The time has come for the Federal Communications Commission to use its power to work in the public's interest and improve broadcasting so communities are better served. It is important the FCC hold its final hearing regarding how well broadcasters are serving their communities. Five of six required hearings have been held, the most recent in Portland, Maine.

At the sixth hearing, the commissioners will undoubtedly be told by the public — as they were in Maine — that local television newscasts are a distorted reflection of their communities, and that radio has turned to a homogenized formula that is cheap to run, big on return.

Some of the changes the FCC needs to push will be difficult, others easier.

One of the more daunting tasks is not only to stop media consolidation, but roll it back. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 set off a corporate feeding frenzy that has left a few conglomerates in charge of most of the nation's commercial radio stations. Limits on the number of radio stations that can be owned in a single market should be adopted.

While the commissioners are at it, the cross-ownership ban that bars a company from owning radio, television and newspapers in the same market should be upheld, and strengthened.

The commission should also be exploring ways to increase minority and female ownership of radio stations. A recent study of radio ownership showed that women own 6 percent of stations, minorities 7.7 percent. Those are appallingly low numbers for a medium that is a cheap access point into the media.

An easy improvement to America's airwaves is before Congress in the form of a bill that would open up more of the radio dial to Low-Power FM, or LPFM. The emergence of the 10- to 100-watt LPFM stations would allow for more diversity, and more local content.

The airwaves are not beyond repair if the FCC moves quickly. The sixth and final localism hearing needs to be held soon so the FCC can get to work restoring the public's trust in broadcasting.

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