“The Documents Are Not Available”

On Thursday, February 25th — one day before the Radio Preservation Task Force‘s inaugural conference — I traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet up with friend and colleague, Dr. Christopher Terry, who was also attending the conference. Like me, Dr. Terry is a media law and policy scholar who hails from Wisconsin. And also like me, Dr. Terry has been watching with interest the FCC’s foray into definining journalism on the public airwaves.

In his classes, Dr. Terry uses the Commission’s $44,000 fine against WLS-AM for airing newscasts produced by Workers Independent News as a teaching point to explore the FCC’s regulation of sponsored content. In prior posts, I’ve explained how Workers Independent News purchases airtime on selected commercial radio stations to air its newscasts and features. The FCC case stemmed from WLS-AM’s failure to run the required disclaimer that WIN had paid for its own airtime in a small fraction of broadcasts.

But when the FCC decided to sock WLS with such a stiff fine, it made WIN’s legitimacy as a news organization key to its rationale. Unprecedented in the history of U.S. broadcast regulation, the FCC effectively declared Workers Independent News to not be news, thereby justifying such a large forefiture.

Shortly after the FCC’s 2014 decision, I filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the agency for all documents related to its decisionmaking process in the WLS case. Last November, FCC attorneys reported back that they had identified several thousand pages of material…but released less than 90 redacted pages. Among them was the original complaint that kicked off the FCC’s inquiry, which defamed Workers Independent News as an activist organization masquerading as a news outlet. It was on this allegation that the FCC seemed to rest its case. Read More

iHeartMedia’s Debt Dance Intensifies

The nation’s #1 radio broadcast conglomerate stands another step closer to defaulting on nearly $21 billion of IOUs racked up during its consolidation and conglomeration spree of the last twenty years. For those just tuning in, iHeartMedia owes nearly $1.4 billion in debt payments between now and 2018, with nearly $200 million of that due this year.

The company announced a curious plan in late 2015 to ask some of its debt-holders to swap existing debt for stock, the idea being to try and retire the pressing debt first and keep the fiscal ship afloat. In practice, iHeart began shifting some of its assets into a subsidiary named Broader Media, which is effectively a subsidiary holding company within iHeart itself. Those who agreed to swap their debt in iHeart would get paid back in Broader Media equity. Read More

Paper Tiger Warns: Don’t Do Business With Pirates

With unlicensed broadcast operations taking place with impunity in several of the nation’s largest media markets, and facing near-emasculation in the field, the Federal Communications Commission is taking a new tack to try and ameliorate the “pirate problem.”

A letter co-signed by all five Commissioners was mailed out last week to several local government and industry trade groups, including the U.S. Conference of Mayors, National Association of Chiefs of Police, Association of National Advertisers, and National Association of Realtors, among several others.

This letter seeks to inform the recipients about who pirate stations are and asks that they avoid doing business with them. The letter claims that unlicensed broadcasters “can cause harmful interference to licensed radio broadcasters serving their communities, thereby starving stations of their ability to reach their listening audiences and obtain necessary advertising revenues.” It also claims that pirate stations have the potential to interfere with public-safety radio systems.

The tone is slightly admonishing: the recipients are informed that they “may be unknowingly or unintentionally providing aid to pirate stations. . .including buying advertising on such stations to housing the physical stations themselves.” The Commissioners hint that this may expose them to “potential FCC enforcement or other legal actions,” and cautions that being in business with a pirate station may also “sully the reputations of those businesses with the licensed broadcast community and other professional organizations” – sort of a “Scarlet P” approach. Read More

European Digital Radio Transition A Mixed Bag

This month, the Media Intelligence Service of the European Broadcasting Union published a comprehensive overview of the state of digital radio broadcasting throughout the continent. Unlike in the United States, where there’s little love for our proprietary, spectrum-squatting HD Radio system, many European countries are making such great strides with their digital-exclusive DAB/DAB+ networks that they’re mulling the sunsetting of analog radio within the next decade or so.

European Brodcasting Union DAB/DAB+ Map, 2016The EBU report contains mini-briefs on 21 countries and says states like Denmark, Norway, Switzerland and the United Kingdom lead the way in building out their digital radio systems and enticing listeners to migrate to them. Other countries such as Germany and France – who were key innovators in the DAB/DAB+ development cycle – only committed to building out a digital radio network earlier this decade. Even so, in Germany the sales of digital radio receivers already outpace analog radio sales. Read More

O’Rielly Outlines Anti-Pirate Agenda for 2016

Speaking at the Country Radio Seminar last week, FCC Commissioner Mike O’Rielly laid out several items he’d like to make part of radio’s regulatory agenda this year. And true to form, the man who’s made pirate radio a personal crusade has big plans to try and wipe out what he calls “poison ivy in the garden of the radio spectrum.”

O’Rielly acknowledged that the largest concentrations of unlicensed broadcasters are in America’s cities, such as New York, Boston, and Miami, but claims that “the problem is expanding rapidly,” and it represents “an attack on the integrity of our airwaves – an attack that must be confronted and defeated on no uncertain terms, lest it continue to push forward.” Read More