The “Commission,” in this case, is the Federal Communications Commission, and if this sounds familiar, it’s because it is.
Twice before — on March 7, 2003, and just last year, on November 30, 2006 — hundreds of area residents jammed auditoriums to testify overwhelmingly in opposition to a Republican-dominated FCC’s attempts to further weaken ownership limits on broadcast television and radio properties. In each case, the crowds testified only before the two Democratic commissioners; the three-person Republican majority was MIA. But those crowds were broadly representative of a national movement for media democracy that in only a few years stymied former FCC Chair Michael Powell’s deregulation bid, preserved net neutrality, and stopped a telecommunications lobby “reform bill” widely expected to pass the Republican Congress in 2006. In last year’s hearing, local testifiers against deregulation spanned an unlikely ideological range, from Reclaim the Media’s Jonathan Lawson to Seattle Times owner Frank Blethen, from KVI Radio host John Carlson to UW President Mark Emmert.
This time, FCC Chair Kevin Martin, architect of the latest (big) industry deregulation scheme, is bringing the whole Commission to town to “prove” to them that Seattle really doesn’t care all that much about this arcane stuff. Which is why, despite the entreaties of local Congresspeople (who wanted four weeks), he has given exactly five business days’ notice for this unprecedented local hearing. The hearing was announced late in the day Friday, November 2, timed for the least-read and -viewed news time of the week. The hearing itself will also be on a Friday night, from 4-11 PM November 9 at Town Hall, 8th & Seneca near downtown Seattle.
For the first two hearings, a significant number of people traveled from throughout the region, from California to Montana to Alaska, to make their opinions known to the FCC. The short notice and inconvenient time seem particularly designed to suppress regional testimony. Seattle area supporters of media democracy will need to stand in their stead. The FCC is hoping for a sedate dog and pony show that will ratify its ideological desire to give the public’s airwaves to the biggest companies and highest bidders (think Murdoch), regardless of content. They are looking to ram this through before opponents can get organized.
Our job is to be organized. And show up.
In a significant way, we already are organized. Much has changed since 2003, when the FCC first came to town. Nationally, the media democracy movement that barely existed five years ago is now a potent political force. Locally, newspaper lovers dodged a bullet when an ongoing court bid to dissolve the Times’ and P-I’s Joint Operating Agreement was going so badly for the Times (which initiated it) that the JOA was extended instead. But King County’s other daily paper, the King County Journal, was dissolved in the last year, and the 2006 purchase of the Seattle Weekly by the country’s largest “alternative” weekly chain led to the effective dismantling of its news department. Among the companies owning the 30 or so major local radio and television stations, only Fisher Broadcasting (KOMO TV/radio, KVI and Star 101.5 radio) is locally owned.
I have a personal stake in this, of course. I was a columnist and editorial board member at the Weekly for eight years, until its shift in editorial direction. Plus, a media company I started over 20 years ago is now owned by Clear Channel, which is also the nation’s largest owner of radio stations, with over 1,200. When Clear Channel started, the FCC allowed a maximum of 14 stations per company nationally.) Now Clear Channel, CBS, Entercom, and Sandusky own five radio stations each in the Seattle area alone.
Ultimately, though, my personal stake is the same as everyone else’s: I want to know about decisions being made that might affect my life, and I don’t trust Clear Channel or CBS or Belo or Entercom or any of the other companies controlling our TV and radio dials to tell me what I need to know. I don’t like the idea of media monopolies on information. The same is true of the music I listen to or the entertainment programs I watch. The number of people who access radio or TV programming through satellite or their computer is still minimal. And so the FCC’s proposed ruling — which would, for the first time, allow radio, TV, cable, and newspapers in the same cities to all be co-owned by one company — is a recipe for a media monopoly on local news, entertainment, and culture.
November 9 is our chance to tell the FCC what we think of the idea. If you care about a free flow of information in our democracy, please turn out, and let them know what you think. Whether they want to know or not.