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.
Ironically, the FCC majority references this state of affairs as justification for axing the main studio rule, and couches its elimination as the last in a natural progression of steps begun during the Reagan era. It claims that “eliminating the main studio rule will provide broadcasters with the same flexibility as Internet radio stations and cable and satellite providers, none of which are subject to a main studio requirement,” and suggests that “broadcasters can interact with local community members using technology such as social media, and even without a local main studio, broadcasters can use modern technology to broadcast information about local events.”
Up until just very recently, broadcasters differentiated themselves from these very competitors they cite based on the fact that they practice localism, which was traditionally defined as physically being in communities that they serve. They often cite charity drives, sponsorship or organization of community events, and expanded news/public affairs coverage in times of crisis or disaster. This order, and many of the comments that were filed in support of it, wholly contradict this narrative.
The people of Minot, North Dakota understand this all too well. Back in 2002, a train carrying hazardous chemicals derailed in the dead of night, creating a toxic cloud of anhydrous ammonia that drifted through town. One person died and hundreds were injured. Local authotities tried to contact the designated emergency-broadcast outlet in town; that station and five others were owned by Clear Channel (now iHeartMedia) and at which, since it was after business hours, there was nobody home.
911 calls from that night feature dispatchers recommending people tune into Clear Channel’s local news/talk station for more information. At the time, and in revisionist histories published since, Clear Channel claimed that there was some sort of communication-breakdown between local officials and their stations…but if nobody’s holding down your own fort the failure-point is pretty clear.
Furthermore, the FCC claims that by eliminating the need for broadcast stations to maintain a local presence, “Broadcasters will be able to redirect the significant costs associated with complying with the main studio rule to programming, equipment upgrades, newsgathering, and other services to the benefit of consumers.” Leaving aside the question of how you meaningfully provide service to a community if nobody works there, there is no evidence presented to justify this claim, or that prior policy changes that allowed broadcasters to disinvest in their physical presence have resulted in more local service.
On top of this, the FCC has already teed up a vote next month to begin a proceeding to eliminate some of its media cross-ownership rules, particularly ones that forbid or restrict radio/television stations and newspapers from owning each other. Ironically, the majority’s proposed rule-text notes that since radio news has effectively disappeared from the airwaves, there’s no harm in letting TV stations or newspapers own radio stations as the principle of “viewpoint diversity,” in its view, is also anachronistic.
Straight from the text: “the diminished contributions of local broadcast radio stations to viewpoint diversity, together with increasing contributions from new media outlets and the public interest benefits of radio/television combinations, no longer justify continued radio/television cross-ownership regulation.” This directly contravenes a core rationale used to justify abandoning the requirement for broadcasters to maintain an actual studio.
Either radio stations prioritize localism, or they do not. It’s already the case that many stations may sound local without actually being local. And despite the active dissimulation taking place in the FCC’s policymaking, do not forget that all of these efforts work toward the favor of broadcast conglomerates who’ve spent the last 20 years building national or regional empires on the fly – and many of whom have paid dearly for it in terms of unsustainable levels of debt.
It’s highly unlikely that your local truly independent commercial broadcaster or community station (should you be lucky enough to have one) will close their physical doors and send people packing, for those are (or will soon) be the last vestiges of localism to be found on your AM and FM dials. For companies like iHeartMedia, Cumulus, and the like, this will provide timely relief to their bottom lines, allowing them to shunt more revenue toward trying to stay afloat.
Factor in the fiscal interest that will be generated when broadcasters and publishers are unleashed to acquire each other, and it’s pretty clear to see where this all leads.