In 2008, the FCC released information pertaining to the specifics of "localism."
Localism. Sounds harmless. One of the fundamentals for broadcasters, whether radio or television has been "local, local, local." That is, they focus on issues and events that occur within the framework of what they view as the local market. Given the large footprints of Portland's television stations, that view of what is local will include areas as far apart as Lincoln City to The Dallas, north of Longview to Mossyrock or Morton, south to Albany, Lebanon and Corvallis. For a radio broadcaster in Salem or Tillamook, the idea of what constitutes local is going to be greatly constrained, due primarily to the signal strength of a small market radio station. If your station is in Tillamook, local is Tillamook. You might run a news story on Garibaldi or Short Sands, but really, pretty much all you're concerned with is the doin's in T-Mook. Your advertisers are there, their families go to school at Tillamook High School, and chances are you either own a cow, or know someone who does.
So, the FCC wants broadcasters to conform their efforts to serve their local market to rules issued by the Commission. What's wrong with that?
Let's look at KXYZ, a Tillamook radio station. Owned by a man and his wife, he takes care of the day-to-day engineering, she takes care of the bookkeeping and making sure that the spots that will run are scheduled correctly. Maybe they have a couple of folks who work on-air for three hours a day, and sell spots the rest of the day. They are committed to providing local listeners with the highest quality entertainment they are able to provide. And there are a lot of hidden caveats in that statement. It doesn't always work out, as planned. Things break. Tubes wear out. Power outages occur. Then there's the problem of talent. You can have the greatest intention in the world to be an amazing entertainer, and, by buying a radio station you may provide yourself with your own first step to stardom, but really? Some guys are legends in their own minds. So, the quality of the show may be, errm...okay, not so good. Yet, you have a killer playlist, and you know folks are listening for the music, and pretty much without regard for what that playlist is, if your station is recognized for being there, dependably and consistently, with some sort of information about what's happening in your community, high school sports scores, that kind of thing, folks are going to listen.
Is this enough for the Commission? As the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (.pdf)outlines, "...some broadcasters devote significant amounts of time and resources to airing programming that is responsive to the needs and interests of their communities of license.”
Some is not all. "At the same time time, in written comments and testimony received during six related field hearings, many other commenters have raised serious concerns that broadcasters’ efforts, as a general matter, fall far short from what they should be."
A couple of questions form, such as, "who are these "other commenters" and what is their agenda, and, here's a guy and his wife, a couple of employees spinning discs and selling spots in the community, all paid for out of the owner's pocket, and some "commenters" are willing to suggest that Pop isn't doing enough to devote significant amounts of time and resources to airing programming that is responsive to the needs and interests of their communities of license?
Wouldn't you rather think, that Pop spends most of every waking, and much of his time sleeping, worrying about whether or not the performance of his station is leading to a stable and growing listening audience, and a stable and growing advertiser base? Does Pop spend more time pining for the chili found in Austin, or the Sharp, up the road?
"Specifically, the record indicates that many stations do not engage in the necessary public dialogue as to community needs and interests and that members of the public are not fully aware of the local issue-responsive programming that their local stations have aired."
Necessary. Television stations and radio stations are, in fact, required to demonstrate that they provide "significant" on-air treatment of community needs and interests that have been determined to be worthy of such significance. Public awareness of local problems, areas of need.
Each station is currently doing such things, understood to be an obligation of the holder of a license to use the Spectrum. Necessary public dialogue. Pop and his wife, their two employees, are out in the community each day. Talking to their neighbors and friends. Picking up the phone to ask a question of a school board member, or the director of the port. Getting answers to questions the guy at the flooring store asked about the county highway. Local, local, local. But "...members of the public are not fully aware of the local issue-responsive programming that their local stations have aired."
The Commission must fix this. "Against this backdrop, the Commission proposes certain changes to its rules and policies that will promote both localism and diversity." Yeah. Because Pop doesn't have a clue that having contact with the community, having contact with his audience, and providing a consistent and dependable source for entertainment, news, sports and weather is important. "We also discuss ways to encourage broadcasters to improve programming targeted to local needs and interests, and to provide more accessible information about those on-air efforts to the people in their communities."
All great stuff! And, it looks good on paper. But how to get it into practise?
"Because the centerpiece of localism is the communication between broadcasters and the members of the public that they are licensed to serve, the Report also addresses current efforts undertaken by both broadcasters and the Commission itself to make relevant information concerning broadcasters’ efforts to serve their communities readily available to the public. The record here suggests that the dialogue
between broadcasters and their audiences concerning stations’ localism efforts is not ideal." To the guy writing this. We're asked to come to a mythical place, where a guy who built his radio station with his own hands and money, relies upon his performance to dependably and consistently entertain and inform, who relies upon his relationships with the jobs creators and economic movers and shakers in his market for his survival, doesn't exist. Because there isn't the level of "dialogue" deemed by the Commission to warrant their approval.
And you ever wonder about media bias? How do you avoid the kind of nightmarish schemes proposed by the Commission? Well, you show how you're doing what they want, voluntarily. You go into your community and create a list of community organizations and advocacy groups that you will inform when you plan to hire an additional full-time employee. Of course, that this makes you a potential target for retaliation if you don't hire a referred potential hire is unimportant to the Commission. (Just joking.) "As a result, the actions discussed herein will allow greater diversity in what is seen and heard over the airwaves, and ensure that communities have access to valuable, locally responsive programming."
Ensure that communities have access to valuable, locally responsive programming." As you read through the NPR, you'll find these types of slippery slopes all over the place. It isn't enough for Pop to spend his own time and money bringing this unique resource to his listeners, free, at his own expense, but the Commission wants to make sure that the content of his programming meets standards developed by them, not the owner/operator, his listeners, his advertisers.
How to do it? "Creation of advisory boards whereby stations regularly meet with community leaders and individuals from all sectors of the community...Providing for improved access to station decision-makers by the leadership of all local community groups." So, folks who have absolutely no idea of how to run a show, are going to be telling the guys who run the show, how to run the show. Brilliant. Every radio station must sound like KBOO or NPR, or else. "We do tentatively conclude, however, that the same fundamental objectives can be achieved through other means, including regular, quarterly licensee meetings with a board of community advisors and improved access by the public to station decision makers." Ah! The Paris Commune! Of course! It's just what every broadcast executive wants, meeting with a "board of community advisors" in order to further the access goals of the board. Forget the show! Forget entertaining the audience. We must have priorities!
You ever wonder why there's bias in the media?
One last note; none of this applies to newspapers, books and magazines. Broadcasters have no First Amendment rights. The content of what broadcasters may broadcast is regulated. A broadcaster affirms that he will voluntarily abide by the rules of the Commission, as a condition of his licensure. If the Commission wills it, broadcasters must abide.
More, at Broadcast Law Blog.