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News Archive: May 2012

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5/31/12 - FCC May Scrutinize Milwaukee's Rabidly Right-Wing Radio [link to this story]

A significant broadcast complaint has been filed with the FCC by the Media Action Center. MAC is a broadcaster watchdog with a particular focus on assessing how radio and TV stations operate in the public interest. Of special concern are the hyper-partisan leanings of talk radio - which makes the basis for MAC's most recent activity here in Wisconsin.

As you may have heard, Wisconsin is in the throes of an historic recall election which seeks to oust Governor Scott Walker and Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch for promulgating policies that have decimated Wisconsin's economy as well as its systems of education and health care (these are just a few of the many beefs the electorate has with the current administration).

Governor Walker has raised more than $30 million in campaign funds, much of which has been used to inundate the state's airwaves with downright obfuscatory (if not misleading) advertisements. He's also had the lockstep support of the state's largest conservative talk show hosts.

MAC, in conjunction with allies in southeast Wisconsin, have been monitoring the programs of five particularly odious personalities in Milwaukee: Charlie Sykes, Jeff Wagner, Mark Belling, Jay Weber, and Vicki McKenna. Sykes and Wagner do morning and midday shifts on WTMJ-AM, the largest AM station in Wisconsin, while Weber and McKenna have morning shows and Belling does afternoons on the Clear Channel-owned WISN-AM. (McKenna is already under investigation by the FCC for her hackery.)

Last week, MAC contacted the Policy Division of the FCC's Media Bureau alleging that all five have been engaged in illegal campaigning on behalf of Walker through the use of their programs.

MAC's content analysis shows that, on average, Walker and the Republican Party get nearly an hour and a half of cheerleading per day on WISN, while Walker's Democratic challenger, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, receives just 55 seconds of positive coverage. On WTMJ, Walker and the GOP rack up a similar amount of positive coverage per day, while Barrett and the Democrats get two whole minutes.

This analysis includes not just opportunities for the candidates to appear on these programs, but also the appearances of surrogate politicians and party representatives who carry their water and the call-to-action commentary offered by the show hosts themselves.

Alas, the Fairness Doctrine - which mandated that stations give equal time to all sides on political issues - was repealed by the FCC last year. However, a "quasi-equal opportunities doctrine" remains on the books, and it mandates that in the 60 days leading up to an election, if a broadcaster offers a political candidate or their representatives time on the air (outside of a bona-fide news situation), they must also extend the same courtesy to the candidate's opponent(s).

Informally called the "Zapple Doctrine," this rule was first promulgated in 1970 in response to an FCC challenge filed by Nicholas Zapple, a lawyer for the Commerce Committee of the U.S. Senate. He requested the agency extend its equal-time rules regarding political campaigning to include not just appearances by candidates, but also those who speak on their behalf. When the FCC abolished the Fairness Doctrine, it did not take down the Zapple Doctrine with it, which many consider to be independently justified.

If so, the behavior of WTMJ and WISN's conservative talkers blatantly fouls the Zapple Doctrine, considering the sheer number of pro-GOP guests they've booked and the amount of time the hosts themselves spend advocating for the party during their programs.

In recent years, the FCC has deprioritized broadcast regulation more generally, and has historically been loathe to delve into content-based controversies (unless they include a component of indecency). However, primary indications are that the Policy Division of the Media Bureau is taking a close look at the MAC complaint, in part because the alleged violations have been so egregious and the power of WTMJ and WISN on the state's media landscape is so pervasive.

The agency won't make a determination on the complaint until well after Wisconsin's recall election has run its course, but there is a chance that it could take some action before the presidential election in November. That is, of course, assuming that the FCC has the political will to honestly plumb this can of worms. If so, the penalties to WTMJ and WISN could be steep, and the implications of any ruling could have nationwide repercussions regarding the boundaries of political advocacy afforded partisan talk shows.

Broadcasters may try to parry this criticism by attempting to classify their talk programs as news (and thus exempt from the Zapple Doctrine), or by invoking the First Amendment directly. Fortunately, the public interest obligations of broadcasters, who rely on a public resource - the airwaves - to speak still (ostensibly) supersede a knee-jerk reading of the Constitution, and there's nothing remotely newsworthy about the shtick of Sykes and McKenna et al. Here's hoping the FCC has the stones to give this issue the exploration it deserves.

5/24/12 - FCC Enforcement: Check, Please! [link to this story]

It's been an active spring for field agents in the FCC's Enforcement Bureau, but the agency's pirate-hunting fervor still seems tempered. The present pace of this year's activity mirrors 2011 - good news of a sort, because last year saw a massive drop-off in enforcement action.

That said, about four dozen pirate stations in 13 states (and Puerto Rico) have had some sort of contact with the federales this year. Although the FCC's enforcement protocol remains firmly in the administrative realm, there have been some interesting developments this year.

The FCC seems to be ratcheting up the size of the monetary penalties it assesses against pirate broadcasters. To date, the Enforcement Bureau's issued eight forfeitures this year seeking a total of $102,500. In all of last year, the Bureau issued nine forfeitures worth $168,400. If this pace continues, 2012 could be the FCC's most fine-happy ever (a distinction currently held by 2003, when the Bureau billed 18 pirates for $186,100).

Some of these cases are pretty spectacular. One San Diego-area pirate who operated on multiple frequencies since at least 2010 got socked in March with two $25,000 fines. That's one of the largest forfeitures in modern microradio history. In Tennessee, because a microbroadcaster refused a field agent's request to inspect his station, the FCC seeks $22,000 from his hide.

This tactic is much more impressive on paper than in the real world. It's notoriously difficult for the FCC to collect on the forfeitures it issues, and in many cases with pirates, fines are statutorily reduced when a person demonstrates an inability to pay. Stiffening monetary penalties for refusing an FCC inspection is also a legally-questionable venture.

The more troubling development, however, comes not from the FCC. The ranks of bad apples operating dirty transmitters appears to be growing, especially in and around New York, where the Federal Aviation Administration reported five pirates for alleged interference with "frequencies...used by airplane pilots to communicate with airports in the New York City Metropolitan Area."

If true, this does not bode well for the public perception of pirate radio - and while it can sometimes be a dicey proposition, some self-policing among unlicensed broadcasters is definitely in order. Running a homegrown radio station is not rocket science, and proper signal filtering is both inexpensive and unobtrusive. If you're already taking the risk, why not do it right?

The broadcast industry claimed more than a decade ago that pirate radio stations could make airplanes fall from the sky. It's as ludicrous today as it was then, but the NAB and its state-level counterparts will use cases like these to push for the further criminalization of electronic civil disobedience. The FCC will welcome any assistance it can get.

5/17/12 - Crowdsourcing Community Radio [link to this story]

Sometimes futurists don't look far enough into the past before proposing their next big idea.

Case in point: Eliot Van Buskirk seems pretty excited about the pending expansion of the LPFM radio service, and he suggests that stations look into crowdsourcing their programming: "using music apps to control low-powered radio stations within small urban (or suburban, or even rural) areas" seems like a great way to program a station on the cheap, and it would most likely sound like nothing else on the dial.

Initial reaction to the idea is mixed. But it's not necessarily new: pirate radio's already been there and done that, more than a decade ago.

The crowdsourced-programming experiment occurred on the airwaves of 2000 Flushes Pirate Radio, a 30-watt station that occupied the airwaves of Minneapolis in the mid-to-late nineties and early oughts. Originally founded in 1995, 2000 Flushes dabbled in several microradio tactics that are used regularly today, such as using the internet as a studio-to-transmitter link.

At the turn of the century, 2000 Flushes opened its airwaves to direct public access. Chief engineer Eric Generic established a web site through which anyone could submit audio files of any kind. These were automatically sent to the station's playlist-computer and aired within minutes of uploading. To cater to those who didn't yet have online access, 2000 Flushes set up a phone number that went straight to voicemail; people could record a rant, song, or other ditty which would also be automatically transferred into the station's playlist.

The response to the initiative was impressive. According to programmer Dan Crash, "We got more than just music. We got original programming, from mock political ads making George Bush out to be a whiny coke fiend, to people shouting out their own rants, to people making up their own station IDs." 2000 Flushes crowdsourced several hours' worth of programming in less than two weeks.

It's anyone's guess as to just how big it could've gotten, because the FCC intervened less than two weeks into the experiment, chasing the station off the air. When 2000 Flushes returned, it assumed a more transitory, hit-and-run style of operation.

Today, with the growing availability of wireless broadband and computing power available in a smartphone that puts the desktops of the late 20th century to shame, it seems like a good opportunity to dust off an idea that was ahead of its time. Here's hoping someone does pick up where 2000 Flushes left off.

5/7/12 - Media Minutes: 2004-2012 [link to this story]

After seven and a half years, Free Press has discontinued the production of Media Minutes, its weekly headline radio newscast that examined issues at the intersection of media and democracy.

I developed and launched Media Minutes in 2004, as a doctoral student at the University of Illinois' Institute of Communications Research. I'd left the broadcast industry in 2000 out of disgust at what it had done to stymie the rollout of LPFM, and had thought that my days as a radio journalist were behind me.

This was not to be. During my master's work at the University of Wisconsin, I co-founded Workers Independent News, the first labor-centric radio news program to be launched in the U.S. in more than 50 years. My work with WIN caught the ear of Bob McChesney, then a professor at ICR, and when I was accepted into that program he e-mailed me out of the blue to ask whether I'd be interested in starting a similar program focused on issues of media policy and reform.

Having no funding guarantee, I jumped at the opportunity, and in the fall of 2004 I built my own studio on campus and began the Media Minutes adventure.

The folks at Free Press gave me a lot of latitude with the show. We did a conference call at the beginning of each week, where we tossed around story ideas and discussed the various campaigns FP had going on or in the works. Within the first year, Media Minutes had gained a lot of traction, breaking stories such as the Bush-era politicization of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Supreme Court's decision that threw the principle of network neutrality into the realm of uncertainty.

In addition to the weekly program, I produced special daily editions of Media Minutes at Free Press' National Conference for Media Reform in Saint Louis (2005) and Memphis (2007), during which I had the opportunity to meet and/or interview folks like Bill Moyers, Naomi Klein, Al Franken, Janine Jackson, Danny Glover, Amy Goodman, Robert Greenwald, Boots Riley, Bernie Sanders, and FCC Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, among many others.

I left Media Minutes in 2007 to teach (this was grad school, after all, and I needed to build experience for my newly-chosen vocation). To their credit, and in recognition of the show's importance to the organization's larger mission, Free Press committed to continuing the program under the able ministrations of Stevie Converse, Candace Clement, and Megan Tady. I disassembled my DIY studio and shipped all the gear to FP HQ in Massachusetts.

And the program played on for another five years, until last Friday, when Media Minutes produced its last episode.

At its peak, Media Minutes was carried by nearly 200 radio stations around the world and distributed widely online. The program became a source of its own for journalists covering media policy and activism, and often served as the venue in which Free Press spread the first word about its campaign-work.

The discontinuation of Media Minutes is bittersweet. I'm no parent, but when I heard the news it felt like I'd lost a child. I wasn't privy to the rationale for ending the show, but I understand that there's only so much time and energy to go around, and it's a lot of work to put together a broadcast-quality program. Free Press itself is a much different (and much bigger) organization than it was nearly eight years ago, and the Internet's evolved immensely over time to become the primary outlet for FP's informational and outreach efforts.

I can't thank Free Press enough for their support of Media Minutes over the years. They took on a grad student sight-unseen and made him part of the media reform family. Of all the work I've done in broadcast journalism. Media Minutes stands as one of my proudest accomplishments. I hope there's many more opportunities for us to collaborate in the future.

5/3/12 - Broadcast Engineers: A Dying Breed? [link to this story]

A recent paper (PDF) from the Society of Broadcast Engineers paints a stark picture for the vocation of broadcast engineering.

The SBE notes that the number of broadcast engineers (especially those employed full-time) has been in a steady decline since the 1980s. This is when the FCC began getting rid of rules that required engineers to hold specific (and often multiple) qualifications to work at radio and television stations. Broadcasters could thus get by with fewer engineers, and many jobs which engineers used to do could now be done by lesser-qualified staff.

Following the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, as the radio industry consolidated many stations were clustered into centralized facilities. This further decimated the ranks of broadcast engineers; those still left found themselves responsible for multiple stations. Many broadcasters have done away with employing a full-time engineer altogether, preferring instead to contract the work out.

In addition to this trend, those still in the field are aging rapidly. Nearly three-quarters (73.9%) of working SBE members are 46 years old or older; the average age of an SBE member is 54.

Although the number of younger people entering the field seems to have picked up a bit over the last few years, "the raw numbers fall far short of what is needed to replace those who are retiring or leaving the field."

The SBE says that "in some markets, a shortage of engineers has been developing....Station and engineering managers report that jobs they advertise sometimes don't attract enough candidates, qualified or otherwise; sometimes, no candidates at all."

Furthermore, the skill-set of the broadcast engineer is changing. It's no longer just a job of maintaining transmitters and studio equipment: the digitalization of broadcasting has made knowledge of computers and network administration increasingly important. Broadcast engineer and blogger Paul Thurst has written on this trend, and notes that "The old days of the RF guru are coming to a close."

The number of broadcast stations continues to rise, while the number of qualified engineers to oversee them is dwindling; meanwhile, those still working find themselves with much more to do, less resources to work with, and an expansion of engineering responsibilities more generally.

Can this trend be reversed? And what does this say about the technical integrity of broadcasting today?