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News Archive: February 2014

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2/25/14 - Abusing the Bully Pulpit [link to this story]

It's common for members of the Federal Communications Commission to use their positions as bully pulpits for favored causes. For example, Frieda Hennock (the agency's first female Commissioner) pressed for an expansion of noncommercial broadcasting in the United States. Former Chairman Mark Fowler spoke loudly and often from the bully pulpit, decrying the regulation of media more broadly and precipitating the wildly neoliberal paradigm that has captured contemporary regulation.

More recently, Chairman William Kennard spoke out against media consolidation by advocating for the creation of the LPFM radio service, while Commissioner Mignon Clyburn spearheaded a drive to drastically reduce the rates for making calls from prisons, among many other initiatives during her stint as interim Chair.

But sometimes the bully pulpit provides a way to dissent from agency practices, the idea being that public scrutiny may pressure some change from within. Former Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein were famous for touring the country and holding public hearings to learn what actual Americans thought about the state of their media environment.

This is the new-found role of Ajit Pai. One of the two sitting Republican Commissioners, and nearing the halfway-point of his term, Pai has not shied from the bully pulpit. His love of AM broadcasting drove him to jumpstart an FCC proceeding to examine mechanisms for revitalizing the AM band. That's a great example of putting the bully pulpit to proactive use.

But earlier this month, Pai took to the pulpit to smear an FCC project looking into the process and practice of journalism. [He follows the lead of 16 House Republicans who have already expressed their disdain for this research.]

In a nutshell, the proposed study of Critical Information Needs would have deeply explored the news ecosystems of several U.S. media markets markets to better understand how the mix of stories that make up our public discourse actually become "the news." As a work of journalism research, the proposal is unprecedented: there's never been a truly systematic analysis of entire media markets with such ambitious depth and breadth, and the data collected would have had implications far beyond the FCC itself, as it addresses fundamental questions about the operation of the "public sphere" in modern America.

A prior attempt at this, commissioned in the early-00's by Chairman Michael Powell to justify the evisceration of the FCC's media ownership rules, was so badly conceived and executed that it failed the legitimate-research test, and ended up being instrumental in convincing the courts to block Powell's deregulatory zeal. So obviously, this is a touchy subject, and with Pai it hit a raw nerve.

He set up his critique by cherry-picking quotes from the 78-page proposal so that it reads like the FCC is preparing to "pressur[e] media organizations into covering certain stories." Pai then invoked one of the right-wing's favorite bugaboos: the Fairness Doctrine. Effectively repealed in 1987, he suggested the Critical Information Needs study "is a first step down the same dangerous path."

Finally, Pai questioned the FCC's authority to study journalism more broadly: "How can the news judgments made by editors and station managers impede small businesses from entering the broadcast industry? And why does the [study] include newspapers when the FCC has no authority to regulate print media?"

The simplistic and alarmist rhetoric has been red meat for the right-wing media, generating immense pressure on FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler to modify or cancel the Critical Information Needs study proposal. Initially, Wheeler stood by the proposal's legitimacy and necessity, but after Pai went on Fox News to ratchet up the pressure, the FCC signaled it would wholly revise it.

I honestly thought Pai might be above such demagoguery and intimidation. But since his claims are out there:

Research hurts nobody. Historically, regulatory agencies have conducted research to better understand the practical effects of regulation. Many times, this research is broadly informative over a range of potential policy arenas, and oftentimes it does not lead to actionable policy. Thus, Pai's claim that the FCC is heading down some slippery slope toward "newsroom policing" is laughable. Since the study never passed beyond the proposal-stage, it's impossible to predict what its policy-implications might have been. And since it was killed in the womb, as it were, then it's not a stretch to call it an abortion.

If Pai is implying that the passage of some political litmus test is required before the FCC can engage in research, that calls into question the fundamental integrity of the agency's business.

Not all research is based in economics. This is the Achilles' heel of the contemporary regulatory paradigm. Infatuated with marketplace theory to the point of religious fervor, and buttressed by the Telecommunications Act of 1996's mandate that regulation should be primarily weighed in the vein of its economic effects, Pai suggested that the FCC was somehow treading out of bounds with its Critical Information Needs study.

Besides the fact that this is an overly-simplistic reading of the Telecom Act, the imposition of such ideological blinders from above has decimated the agency's ability to do independent and comprehensive policy analysis. The FCC's increasing reliance on industry-provided research has created what former Commissioner Adelstein once called "faith-based regulation"—a situation in which media policy gets made in an environment almost wholly devoid of meaningful facts. Radio's digital transition is a poster-child for faith-based regulation's worst-case scenario.

Pai's blinders also allow him to ignore the fact that journalism is not a commodity like widgets that can be perfectly calculated and modeled. I doubt that he would disagree that what we often consider the "best" journalism is that which has civic effects that extend far beyond the economic realm. Disciples of neoliberalism hate market intangibles, but that doesn't make them go away.

It's hard to be a marketplace evangelist, then pick and choose your markets. The cheapest shot of Pai's piece has to be the claim that, since the Critical Information Needs proposal would have involved research into newspapers, it fell way outside the FCC's permissible scope of inquiry. Not only does this deny the above points, it cleverly denies the phenomenon of media convergence that, in other arenas, Pai praises with great zeal.

The refrain goes something like this: if all media are slowly evolving to occupy a single platform, then what's the point of having regulations for different types of media? You can clearly see the deregulatory appeal. But it's intellectually dishonest to worship convergence in the big picture and deny it in the gritty details. That's tantamount to claiming that gravity exists except in those situations that do not fully suit your political worldview.

This entire stew is an excellent example of the moral bankruptcy of modern media policymaking—heaven forbid we gain a better understanding of how information flows affect the practice of democracy.

2/18/14 - RadioDiscussions Sheepishly Restored [link to this story]

A curious e-mail hit my inbox this weekend announcing the resurrection of Once a mainstay of online discussion about U.S. broadcasting, the site suddenly disappeared in December when its owner, Streamline Media, pulled the plug. Streamline had just purchased RadioDiscussions seven months before declaring it unprofitable.

The new manager is Charles Bosworth (aka "Charlie Profit"), a Canadian radio professional who's branched out into new media marketing. Bosworth is also the administrator of Your Midwest Media, a message board focused on the central United States.

In the re-introductory e-mail, Bosworth says he has "made some significant improvements in the hardware and software to better handle the load" and the disastrous redesign implemented by Streamline is gone, so the site is cleanly navigable and readable.

On another online forum, Bosworth explained that while he isn't privy to everything that went down, Streamline's founder, Eric Rhoads, "feels regret for having taken [RadioDiscussions] down and is hopeful the community will forgive the misstep." Yet Rhoads and his crew say it's business as usual, save for some planned "premium features" which may or may not help monetize the site, and they're still hot to pimp its audience metrics to advertisers.

The most precious commodity any online community has is trust: without it, there is no community. Rhoads et al. have squandered that trust; perhaps the best bet is for Streamline to devise an exit strategy, for it will inevitably tire of providing something more akin to a public service than a business proposition.

2/11/14 - FCC Enforcement in 2013: No Great Crusade [link to this story]

The federales ended their unlicensed broadcast enforcement activity with a whimper last year, apparently taking the month of December off completely. The entirety of 2013 saw 249 FCC enforcement actions, a slight reduction from 2012 levels.

Overall, the FCC was active against pirate stations in 24 states and the District of Columbia, and more than 90% of those stations involved were on the FM band. The vast majority of enforcement activity was concentrated on the coasts, with New York and New Jersey being the hottest spots for pirates—as evidenced by the major sweep the FCC did there in July. (For what it's worth, there's been no material change in the number of FM frequencies occupied by interlopers on my own radio dial here in Brooklyn.)

FCC enforcement activity remains almost wholly administrative. 90% of it involved station-visits and the issuance of warning letters. Since most stations are the target of at least that minimal amount of attention, the number of stations actually contacted by the FCC tops out around 100. However, the agency's penchant for inflating these statistics remains in full effect: a gym in Washington state got four warning letters for each mini-FM transmitter plugged into its television sets; a guy in California running three transmitters got a separate warning letter for each one.

A dozen fines were issued to pirates in 2013, totaling nearly $140,000—a significant decline from 2012. In this regard, the wheels of justice still grind quite slowly: the last fine handed out in 2013 went to a pirate the agency first opened a case on in 2009.

State-level anti-pirate laws don't appear to be making much of a dent, either. Just four arrests between New York and Florida, taking down a total of three stations.

As always, the name of the game is relative risk—and the better you can assess it, the easier it actually becomes to flip a transmitter-switch.

2/3/14 - Free Speech Radio News Rides Again [link to this story]

Free Speech Radio News announced this past weekend that it will resume a semblance of operations on Tuesday, February 11th. It's a soft launch, beginnnig with the provision of limited content and then working up to the resumption of daily broadcasts.

A pioneer of the networked newsroom, FSRN has been a stalwart of community broadcasting in the United States for more than a dozen years. Unfortunately, it fell silent last September after its major funder, Pacifica Radio, welshed on several outstanding bills.

In the last four months FSRN staffers and contributors went through some serious soul-searching and fund-hunting. They've found an angel donor to help with the relaunch, and its website will feature supplemental content to the newscast.

Radio stations will pay a sliding-scale fee to carry Free Speech Radio News. However, between that, some "revenue-generating side projects," and the angel-funding, it's not enough to put FSRN on a firm path to sustainability.(Donations are always welcome.)

The amount of program acquisition funding that community radio stations have available is being squeezed, as acquisition costs for popular programs go up while subsidies that many stations receive from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to acquire them do not. No noncommercial radio news program supports itself on affiliate-fees and public donations alone. No word on how large this gap is or how long the program can go before it begins to feel the pinch, but FSRN will only commit to a full-time broadcast schedule once the finances are solid enough.

FSRN's ground-level perspective on journalism and social justice was irreplaceable, and I'm glad it'll be back in my news-mix. Here's to a long second life.