FCC Decimation of Public-Interest Media Regulation Reaches Fever Pitch

Last month the Federal Communications Commission voted to remove the requirement that radio and television broadcasters have an actual physical presence in the communities to which they are licensed, opening the door to more station consolidation, automation, and syndication.

This month, the agency went on quite a tear: it repealed regulations that prohibit a single company from owning the major radio/TV stations and newspaper in a single market. This comes on the heels of the reinstatement of a regulation that encourages the merger of Sinclair and Tribune Broadcasting to proceed.

Furthermore, the Commission sowed the seeds for the eventual collapse of a program designed to subsidize broadband access for the poorest among us. And it endorsed the adoption of a new digital TV broadcast standard which will allow stations to customize programming to individual viewers, a la your Facebook feed. It will also require you to buy a new TV or conversion-box, similar to what was required during television’s initial analog/digital transition. (Incidentally, one of the strongest proponents of and investors in this new technology is Sinclair.)

Next month, as an extra-special Christmas present to the public interest, the Commission will vote to repeal the regulations that preserve network neutrality, and has opened the door to doing away with rules that require the cable industry to report yearly on industry competition and pricing trends. Read More

Stations Without Studios

The Federal Communications Commission has voted along party lines to repeal the main studio rule, which required all broadcast and television stations to have a physical presence in the communities to which they are licensed. This will only serve to heighten trends of consolidation, automation, and syndication that have afflicted the broadcast industry since the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

Even in current practice, the main studio rule was not that robust. Pre-’96, when meaningful caps on broadcast ownership existed, most stations save those who were clustered (that would be four at max for radio) had their own studios, offices, and transmission facilities. In a very important sense, this meant that there was more physical redundancy to the broadcast infrastructure in any given community.

Since 1996, most station-clusters don’t even have separate studios for every station; some stations are literally nothing more than computers tucked away, maintained and updated remotely, that feed their programming to a tower that nobody in the building knows quite where it’s located. Were you to visit a radio station today, you’d most likely find a receptionist, a manager or program director, some sales staff (though these positions are often combined), and perhaps a handful of talent with duties spread across multiple radio outlets. Read More

Ajit Pai: Silence is Consent to the Trump Agenda

The descent into authoritarianism continues apace in the United States, where Donald Trump went on a tirade against NBC News last week for publishing stories about him that he doesn’t like. Repeatedly, Trump suggested that NBC have its broadcast licenses revoked for all the “fake news” that it publishes.

Leaving aside the fact that television networks are not licensed by the Federal Communications Commission (broadcast licenses are awarded to individual radio and TV stations) and thus Trump (again) doesn’t know what he’s talking about, such vitriol from the nation’s chief executive should alarm any American who has actually read the U.S. Constitution. No surprise, then, that several members of Congress and many others have called out Trump for his attack on the First Amendment, and there’s even a case to be made that Trump’s ignorant threats already run afoul of it.

Over at the FCC, both Democratic Commissioners haven’t remained silent in the face of this bluster. Mignon Clyburn low-key responded in tweet-form, commenting that the only way TV stations might see their licenses revoked at Trump’s behest is if “we fail to abide by the First Amendment.” It bears noting that Clyburn may be mulling a run for elected office, so she’s obviously playing this close to the vest.

Meanwhile, Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who was just reappointed to the FCC for another term after a short hiatus, has been much more forceful. Not only has she castigated Trump on social media, but she’s also gone on CNN and told media reporter Brian Stelter that “History won’t be kind to silence. I think it’s important for all the Commissioners to make clear that they support the First Amendment, and that the agency will not revoke a broadcast license simply because the president is dissatisfied with the licensee’s coverage.” Read More

FM vs. iPhone: A Battle of Shaded Truths

Successive rounds of hurricanes battering the U.S. mainland and Puerto Rico are the latest fodder in a radio industry campaign designed to pressure smartphone manufacturers to include radio reception capability in their devices.

Many Android-compatible smarphones are capable of receiving FM signals. The radio industry, led by Emmis Communications, has designed an app called NextRadio that functions as an onboard tuner.

Prior elements of this campaign involved running public service announcements letting people know this functionality existed, and low-key advocacy for a possible mandate for FM in smartphones both at the FCC and Congress. Following Hurricane Irma’s destruction, particularly in Florida, broadcasters amped it up.

They took their cue from FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who explicitly called out Apple on September 28th to enable FM reception in their phones “to promote public safety.” The next day, the National Association of Broadcasters issued a statement that claimed Apple’s iPhone hardware does indeed contain a chip capable of FM reception, but the company has chosen to disable it; “we encourage Apple to activate this feature on their future handsets so Americans can have access to lifesaving information during emergency situations, something that many local radio stations provide.” Read More

FCC Whacks Zombie-Moles

The FCC’s Enforcement Bureau is regularly making waves in the agency’s Daily Digest now, issuing slews of warning-letters to unlicensed broadcasters nearly every week. Interestingly, these letters are typically grouped by location: one week it’s a passel of pirates “caught” broadcasting in the New York metropolitan area, the next a bunch of folks in South Florida, etc.

The agency, and radio industry, have long described the enforcement process as “whack-a-mole” in reference to the carny game where you score points bashing plastic rodents with a mallet, who pop up and disappear often before you can bring the hammer down. It’s an apt description…but the agency’s most recent enforcement-activites vividly demonstrate just how devoid the process is of deterrent value.

In an update to the Enforcement Action Database earlier this month, I highlighted the case of Kacy Rankine. He’s a New Jersey-based unlicensed broadcaster who first appeared on the FCC’s radar way back in 2005. That year he received a slew of station-visits and warning-letters from the federales, but to no avail, so the FCC ended up fining him $10,000 in 2007.

It’s highly unlikely that fine was ever paid, because Rankine was noticed again this year (a full decade later) running another station in another New Jersey community. The FCC, which apparently doesn’t keep a logically comprehensive record of its own regarding prior enforcement actions and lacks a semblance of institutional memory on this issue, simply restarted the enforcement process with Rankine, issuing him a warning letter last month. Read More