News Archive: June 2003
6/30/03 - More Corporate Piracy: FCC Takes 9, Leaves 6 [link to this story]
As June slips away I want to highlight a few other interesting FCC happenings that got crowded off the radar by the hoopla and its reverberations this month. The rest of the loose ends will follow later in the week.
First up is FCC administrative law judge Richard L. Sippel's June 19 decision to revoke two licenses for FM stations owned by Peninsula Communications in Alaska. This case has been wending its way through the agency for several years and involves the company's creation of a seven-station translator network, which it had been operating in violation of the FCC's translator rules since 1994. A $140,000 fine (collection pending) and one federal court injunction later, Peninsula finally silenced the stations last August. The seven translators were fed by two full-power stations; in addition to those Peninsula also owns one AM station, one FM station, and an additional four FM translators.
As part of the ruling, Sippel was to decide whether Peninsula "has the requisite character qualifications to be a Commission licensee." He decided the company should lose the licenses to all of the stations connected to the case, but after some interesting legal contortions he judged the principals fit enough to keep their other six stations.
One would think that a pirate's a pirate: if the FCC can ban someone with a "proven" history of unlicensed broadcasting out of the running for LPFM licenses then it would make sense to apply the no-tolerance rule to everyone. Nine years of operating illegal translators - the last 15 months of which were technically unlicensed - is a pretty egregious violation.
This case, however, involved an entity already doing business with the FCC, not challenging its authority from the outset. Once you're in business, egregious violations - like running seven pirate translators for money - will not result in a ban.
Nitpickers may find fault in my logic because the no-pirates ban only applies to the LPFM service. My beef is with the principle - no pirate has ever run seven stations, with the possible exception of Allan Weiner, and he's a licensed broadcaster now, too.
6/27/03 - FCC Strikes Again in Vermont, Florida [link to this story]
More reports of microradio enforcement activity stretch the FCC's efforts this month from coast to coast. Radio Free Brattleboro, a Vermont microradio station that got its start in a teen center some five years ago, got a nasty visit from two FCC agents Tuesday. Video was recorded of the incident (which we hope to get) and although the agents had no search warrant a list containing contact information for many of RFB's volunteers is missing from the station. Radio Free Brattleboro's web site went down at approximately the same time as the visit.
From RFB's official announcement: "It's a real shame because in addition to providing entertainment and information to the community, we have trained hundreds of local citizens of all ages in the art of radio broadcasting." DJ trainer Steven Twiss emailed with more pointed reaction: "The community here is building up a nice case of outrage."
A press report of the encounter references complaints of interference, although RFB moved frequencies at least once during its run (from 88.1 to 88.9) to make room for a new public radio station.
On the same day the FCC fined a Florida man $10,000 for broadcasting on 93.9 in the Orlando area. Curiously enough, Brian Bloom is the second person in Orlando to get busted using that frequency this year. Can the dial really be that crowded?
6/26/03 - Amendment One Gauges Senate Media Reform Stances [link to this story]
Don Schellhardt's June installment of Amendment One summarizes the latest action on various legislative efforts to reform or repeal the FCC's decision earlier this month to relax media ownership rules. It includes an excellent supplement that details each individual Senator's position on the issue.
June has been a busy month for media reform forces in Washington, D.C. Don's handling the beat for us, but another excellent news source for congressional news is the Free Press Media Reform Network's Washington Watch, as they have people working Capitol Hill.
One detail nobody's making noise about: Arizona Senator John McCain's own quasi-FCC reform bill, the "FCC Reauthorization Act of 2003," would strengthen the power of the Enforcement Bureau by increasing the size of the fines it can issue tenfold.
As a general guide in enforcement cases, the FCC starts with a base fine of $10,000 and works its way up or down from there, depending on the circumstances of each case. That's one of the reasons why so many unlicensed broadcasters are socked for $11,000 - think of it as $10,000 for breaking the rules with a grand extra for being a pirate. Imagine if the benchmark was multiplied by ten...
6/24/03 - Speculative Skinny: Inside the Development of "Progressive" Talk Radio [link to this story]
The announcement earlier this spring that "a group of wealthy Democrats" had assembled a $10 million endowment to launch a "progressive talk-radio network" caused a small flurry of mainstream media coverage; the quotes in this case come from a widely-syndicated column by author Thom Hartmann.
The "group of wealthy Democrats," operating under the moniker AnShell Media, are currently deeply involved in the process of creating this "progressive" talk radio lineup. The new network will launch in late 2003 or early 2004. Once the talent list is ready, AnShell will still need to invest a significant sum to create the broadcast infrastructure to distribute its programming. Given the launch date, this will likely happen within the next few months.
AnShell has two options to create this infrastructure: construct its own broadcast network facilities or buy someone else's.
If you've never heard of the i.e. America radio network, you're not alone. It is a struggling operation, owned (either wholly or in large part) by the United Auto Workers union. Just how the UAW came to own a talk radio network in the first place is a bit of a mystery, but it knows nothing about running one. It claims to have more than 100 affiliates around the country, but not many of those stations actually carry any i.e. America programming, and they are all located in rural or fringe markets. It's not exactly going head-to-head with FOX in prime time.
Until recently i.e. America seemed to be in a rebuilding mode. Late last year it moved into a new, state-of-the-art $2 million broadcast facility in Detroit and had gone through some lineup shuffling. Some of its programming has since been picked up by the Sirius satellite radio network.
i.e. America's most widely-carried programs to date are either niche-oriented or rather bland, but it seemed the network had begun to focus on strengthening its stable of political talk. As unions tend to lean liberal, the network's political talk hosts do as well. Overall, the network is still losing money with only a handful of active affiliates, but it's better than a complete death spiral.
i.e. America's two most prominent liberal talk hosts were Mike Malloy and Peter Werbe. Malloy is the higher-profile of the two, host of a late-evening show. He mysteriously landed several gigs this spring as a liberal talking head on cable news punditry programs.
Werbe, in a midday talk slot, was the more radical of the two, both politically and socially. His was the only program to regularly explore concepts of class consciousness in American society - something Americans, in general, try very hard to deny, even though it lies at the root of many of the country's problems.
Just after finishing his broadcast on Friday, June 20, Werbe was notified by i.e. America's management that he was terminated for "budgetary considerations. " It was completely unexpected - after all, Werbe seemed key to the makeover of i.e. America's image.
It made more sense sense when Werbe was replaced by Thom Hartmann, the aforementioned cheerleader for AnShell Media.
Just because the UAW doesn't know beans about radio doesn't mean its network isn't valuable. The union, well more than $2 million in the hole on i.e. America, might as well have burned the cash for all the impact its investment has made on the mainstream media environment.
AnShell is investing in the talent first but has yet to announce just where it will broadcast from. If AnShell were to buy i.e. America, everybody wins: the UAW could recoup some of its losses and AnShell gets a turnkey network infrastructure, saving money in comparison to the cost of building its own.
Perhaps budgetary concerns did play into the separation of Werbe and i.e. America. He was the only union host on the payroll (a member of the American Federation of Radio and Television Artists), kind of a backwards anomaly for a union-owned network. But if Werbe was fired as a precursor to an AnShell buyout, that's an indicator of just how "progressive" the new network will be. The fact that Hartmann is Werbe's replacement is also worth noting: Hartmann is magnitudes milder.
"Progressive" may be a misnomer for this endeavor. "Mouthpiece for the Democratic Party" is more apt. Just last week AnShell announced Al Gore's arrival on the scene, reportedly assisting on the fundraising front (he brings his own valuable network of "wealthy Democrats" to the table). AnShell's Board of Advisors is already well-connected to what passes for the liberal elite these days.
Although we can't expect the announcement of an official lineup from AnShell for several months, if these dots are connected in the way envisioned here then we already know the limits of what will be considered acceptable "alternative" discourse. AnShell admits that's not the point, anyway: "We've discovered a gaping hole in the radio programming marketplace, which when capitalized on, will yield high-margin revenue."
Oh boy, they will throw us a Coke as we drown in a sea of Pepsi. I can hardly wait.
6/20/03 - Irony on the Side of the Road [link to this story]
Mad props to Alan Freed of Beat Radio for sending this picture in. The billboard's location - and whether this is a genuine or "jammed" message - are unknown.
Clear Channel's Outdoor division is currently the fastest-growing in the conglomerate, recording more than $400 million in revenue during the first quarter of 2003.
6/18/03 - Free Radio San Diego Gets Second FCC Visit; Other CA Pirates on Alert [link to this story]
The dynamic duo who visited Free Radio San Diego last month were caught sniffing around the premises again on Monday; video was reportedly shot of the not-quite-encounter but has not yet been released. Recent reports have also confirmed that FCC agents have been found lurking around at least one other California microradio station, whose location will remain nameless to protect the identity of sources (the FCC reads this site, too).
Historically speaking FCC enforcement activities against unlicensed broadcasters spikes in July. The activity pattern is nationwide.
I'm not sure why this happens: my personal theory is that FCC field agents are like lizards - cold-blooded creatures that must warm to the task of getting feisty. Plus, who wouldn't want to get out of the office more during summer?
6/17/03 - Disney/ABC Dumps NAB [link to this story]
Today ABC/Disney resigned its membership in the National Association of Broadcasters, who now represent none of the major television networks: Fox and NBC bailed out in 2000 and CBS followed a year later.
This particular marriage dissolved over the NAB's resistance to increasing the television ownership caps. On June 2 the FCC raised the cap allowing TV broadcast companies to own enough stations to reach 45% of the viewing audience, up 10% from the previous limit. The networks wanted the caps raised so they could buy more stations and bring them under direct network control; the companies that own most affiliates didn't want increased pressure from the networks. Since the vast majority of U.S. TV stations are NOT network-owned and operated, it was easy to see how the NAB would come down in this fight.
For its part the NAB says its clout in Washington won't be diminished by Disney's departure; after all, broadcast television networks represent a small portion of all of the big media interests which fall under the NAB's purview as a trade association (nobody outside the TV network domain is rushing to jump ship).
Disney already glad-hands more on Capitol Hill than the NAB does, having spent some $1.2 million on political contributions during the 2002 federal election cycle, surpassing the NAB's paltry $959,000 (Viacom topped all corporations with broadcast interests, investing a shade over $2 mil in the 108th Congress).
When push comes to shove on policy issues, as it will this Thursday in a closed-door Senate committee hearing that will discuss the idea of undoing some of the FCC's recent deeds, it's almost certain that ABC and the NAB will kiss and make up. It's not like the NAB and the other three big networks were at fisticuffs over the media ownership issue as a whole - this recent spat is just part of the political show.
6/16/03 - Netherlands Radio Protest Successful [link to this story]
News is scant but it appears the weekend's "100,000 Antennes" mass broadcast/protest in Amsterdam in support of free radio movement went off without incident. Dutch police and radio enforcement authorities apparently kept their cool and let the events take place without interfering. People have published few articles to Indymedia Netherlands as of yet, but one of them features an MP3 interview with U.S. microradio academic Ron Sakolsky, who traveled over to take part in the festivities.
6/12/03 - Dutch Pirates to Protest Crackdown En Masse [link to this story]
Little warning of a big event taking place in the Netherlands this weekend in protest of the Dutch government's recent mass auction of the radio spectrum and companion crackdown on the vibrant pirate scene. The news comes from Vrije Radio:
The multi-station broadcast will be coordinated and streamed live online via IMC-Netherlands. The Independent Media Center network itself has been invaluable for keeping abreast of the Dutch free radio crisis.
6/11/03 - A/V Links of Note [link to this story]
V-Man, Freak Radio Santa Cruz's indyjournalist extraordinaire, is back doing daily news programs on the station. Last month he devoted a show to the state of U.S. microradio (MP3, 33:43, 7.8 MB). Guests included DJ American from Free Radio Olympia and Bob Ugly from Free Radio San Diego, who gave details on his recent up-close and personal visit from the FCC. Thinking of Bob out there interrogating FCC agents "in 50s wigs, sunglasses and a bandanna" makes the listening to the experience even more special.
On the funny tip is this Flash animation of FCC Chairman Mikey Powell as U.S. Minister of Information, courtesy of the creative generosity of Mark Fiore. I especially like the Disney/Viacom/Fox tank battalion that drives through in the background at one point. Mikey's a guy who deserves more of this satire.
6/8/03 - One-Man Partytown Army Strikes Again [link to this story]
Pictures recently received from Modesto,
California, where Partytown Radio's
Brad Johnson continues his
campaign against the corporate media camped out there following
recent developments in a high-profile murder case:
6/6/03 - Bush Announces Spectrum Management Overhaul [link to this story]
Yesterday president Bush issued a "Memo on Spectrum Policy," which sets the stage for a fundamental reform of the way radio spectrum is used and managed in the United States. With the establishment of this "Spectrum Policy Initiative" the White House hopes to "unlock the economic value and entrepreneurial potential of U.S. spectrum assets while ensuring that sufficient spectrum is available to support critical Government functions."
Claiming that "the existing spectrum [management] process is insufficiently responsive to the need to protect current critical uses," the Memo outlines several tasks to begin immediately, involving the cooperation of more than a dozen government departments and agencies.
The effort will be headed up by the Department of Commerce and has two major goals: the first is to basically examine and overhaul the way the government uses spectrum for its own purposes. This sounds like a process of inventory-taking and, possibly, a whittling-away of some spectrum currently claimed for government use that sits mostly unused. This "freed" spectrum will likely be auctioned off to the highest bidder, ostensibly to allow for things like more wireless network traffic capacity.
The second goal is somewhat nebulous at this point, but based on what we do know the potential implications could be huge. A task force will hold a series of public hearings to collect input on ideas for reforming spectrum management policies. The FCC has already produced a set of recommendations calling for a market-driven spectrum regulatory policy, which could conceivably do away with allocations as we know them today and divvy up spectrum use based on the technologies most heavily backed by consumer demand. The broadcast media's conversion to digital signals is a step toward this convergence which has until recently been bandied about as a futurist's buzz word. It is very real, and with this presidential directive it appears to be moving toward implementation.
One of the interesting points outlined in an accompanying "fact sheet" is the White House's desire to eventually see the FCC gain the authority to set "user fees on unauctioned spectrum licenses." The Telecom Act of '96 requires that all commercial spectrum licenses be awarded by auction, and non-commercial licenses be given away for free. This formula both makes money for the Treasury and encourages the creation (if not exactly the flourishing) of some balancing non-commercial use of the spectrum.
Bush and his crew want to change all that. Whereas license-holders for commercial spectrum applications pay once to "own" it, a "user fee" system implies the charging of rent. Many non-commercial spectrum license-holders are non-profit as well (any community or public radio station, for example), and they don't bask in substantial revenues. Amateur radio is by its very nature not engaged in making money. If all of these users must pay to play, what will the impact be? The answer is certainly worse off than we are now, and this is only one small policy change compared to the scale of reform outlined by the president's initiative.
What the FCC did on June 2 affected only some of what the spectrum is used for - radio and television are only a small fraction of the electromagnetic energy flying around our atmosphere. The White House is talking about the whole enchilada: managing the entire spectrum based on the tenet of economic viability and national security, throwing public interest, convenience and necessity out the window.
Perhaps that is why the FCC has not been given a lead role in this project; it is "encouraged" to participate in some of the activities, but it is not being given authority over this overhaul. That lies with its parent, the Department of Commerce. Perhaps the public backlash to the FCC's recent vote played into this decision - the FCC obviously wasn't very receptive to public input, but it's small fry compared to the bureaucracy of a Department of the Executive Branch.
If you believe (as I do) that the size of a bureaucracy is proportional to its deafness and resistance to change, the authority structure Bush has created here is pretty scary, as it will further insulate this process from the public. The president wants spectrum management policy recommendations on his desk in 12 months, so the entire debate will be telescoped into an uncomfortably short window. For his part, FCC Chairman Mikey Powell is applauding the initiative like a good lackey should, even though his agency has been politically dissed pretty hard.
Corporate control over broadcast media is one thing - corporate control over the spectrum itself is quite another. The stakes don't get higher than everything.
6/3/03 - Recent Audio Goodness [link to this story]
Damn, they've gotten a lot tighter since 1999 and the 40 Hour Slave E.P., though I'm still kind of partial to the rawness of the earlier version. A recent sweep for dead/broken links has led to the restoration of all of the featured mp3s in the archive. Get 'em before the RIAA busts me (six years and counting!).
Updating the Schnazz this week brought the discovery of a quasi-humorous segment about Clear Channel done recently on Garrison Keillor's NPR show A Prairie Home Companion (RealOne Player required). It's a little vague, more fun-poking than critical, but a good listen nonetheless.
While Keillor doesn't spark the magical love with me that thousands of other Midwesterners seem to experience when they hear him, the particular episode in which this bit aired is a good one.
6/2/03 - The Deed is Done: FCC Lifts Most Media Ownership Restrictions [link to this story]
Evening Update: This story has been archived as a feature on its own page. The feature includes extra graphics (putting faces to names) and links to both published and "bench" statements by everyone involved.
It took only 90 minutes for the debate; calling the question took less than 15 seconds. And, as expected, the FCC voted along party lines (3-2) to significantly relax the rules restricting media ownership and consolidation, eliminating several of them completely. The agency's news releases are full of sickening spin, but it does provide a decent overview of the new rules.
The biggest bonanzas appear to affect television ownership, where caps have been greatly relaxed, and cross-ownership of media outlets in all but a few large markets is now permitted. Mediageek's Paul Riismandel has posted a more specific analysis of the changes to radio ownership rules.
Clear Channel might be stung by these changes but its freshly-endowed freedom to gobble up television stations and newspapers should more than compensate. The Big Ten must be having a collective orgasm over how much their empires will grow as a result of what happened today. Time to begin paying close attention to business news.
At the links below you can download complete, unedited MP3 files of the statements made by FCC Commissioners and staff during the meeting, along with a bit of context for those who missed the RealVideo webcast of the event. The FCC's archived stream also includes the press conference that followed. Further fleshing out of this story will continue later today, so check back for more info.
Bureau Chief W. Kenneth Ferree (2:59, 705K)
Notable quote: "The poet James Russell Lowell cautioned us not to attempt the future's portal with the past's blood-rusted key. Our rules are about as rusty as they can be...The item before you includes proposed rules that will provide a shiny new key for the digital future."
Michael Powell (5:03, 1.2 MB)
Notable quotes: "I have heard the concerns expressed by the public about excessive consolidation. Though such generalized worries do not clearly suggest specific answers to the specific issues the Commission must address, they have introduced a note of caution in the choices we have made."
"Leaving things unaltered, regardless of any change in the competitive landscape, is a course that only Congress can legitimately chart."
Kathleen Abernathy (9:14, 2.2 MB)
Notable quotes: "The First Amendment to the Constitution protects the rights of free speech and free press and tells me that in my capacity as an FCC Commissioner I cannot tell the American people what they should believe, what they should read, what they should watch or listen to, or what they should do in the area of their own home when it comes to media. Any restraint placed on broadcasters' free speech rights must be a reasonable means to further our public interest goals. The federal court opinions specifically tell me that any restrictions we place on ownership must be based on concrete evidence - not on fear and speculation about hypothetical media monopolies intent on exercising some sort of Vulcan mind control on the American people."
"Those opposing today's order have also emphasized that four companies air programming that is chosen by approximately 75% of viewers during prime time. To me, the critical fact is that these providers control no more than 25% of the broadcast channels in the average home even apart from the Internet and other pipelines. Given these other viewing options I can only presume that this means that Americans are watching these providers because they prefer their content, not because they lack alternatives. It would be anathema to the First Amendment to regulate media ownership in an effort to steer consumers towards other programming, and by the same token concerns about the degradation of broadcast content do not justify government manipulation of consumer choice. Degradation is just an elitist way of saying programming that one does not like."
"For me, given the rules we adopt today, the breakneck pace of technological development, and the ever-increasing number of pipelines into consumers' homes, it is simply not possible to monopolize the flow of information in today's world. Indeed, the fall of Communism in the 1980s and of military dictatorships in the 1990s demonstrates that diverse viewpoints cannot be suppressed even by authoritarian governments, much less by private media companies."
Michael Copps (19:19, 4.5 MB)
Notable quotes: "Radio deregulation gives us powerful and relevant lessons. When Congress and the Commission removed radio concentration protections we experienced massive and largely unforeseen consequences. We saw a 34% reduction in the number of radio station owners. Diversity of programs suffered. Homogenized music and standardized programming crowded out local and regional talent. Creative local artists found it ever more difficult to obtain play time. Editorial opinion polarized. Competition in many towns became non-existent as a few companies bought up every station in the market. This experience ought to terrify us as we consider visiting upon television and newspapers what we have inflicted upon radio. Clear Channelization of the rest of the American media will harm our country."
"There are other things that this order could have done. Commenters address the need to require more independent programming on our airwaves so that a few conglomerates do not act anti-competitively to control all of the creative entertainment that we see. These proposals should have received the serious attention they deserve in this decision."
"This Commission's drive to loosen the rules and its reluctance to share its proposals with the people before we voted awoke a sleeping giant. American citizens are standing up in never-before-seen numbers to reclaim their airwaves and to call on those who are entrusted to use them to serve the public interest...The media concentration debate will never be the same. The obscurity of this issue that many had relied upon in the past, where only a few dozen inside-the-Beltway lobbyists understood the issue is gone forever. I believe, after traveling almost the length and breadth of this land, that our citizens want, deserve, and demand a renewed discussion of how their airwaves are being used, and how to ensure that they are being used to serve the public interest. I urge my colleagues to heed their call."
Kevin Martin (3:32, 832K)
Notable quote: "The existing media ownership rules were adopted to promote three principles: competition, localism and diversity. Since that time the media marketplace has changed significantly. Yet what has not changed is the importance of these core values. Fundamentally our rules must still promote competition, localism, and diversity to nourish a vibrant media marketplace."
Jonathan Adelstein (27:37, 6.4 MB)
Notable quotes: "This is a sad day for me and I think for the country. It may be sunny outside but I'm afraid a dark storm cloud is now looming over the future of the American media. This is the most sweeping and destructive rollback of consumer protections in the history of American broadcasting."
"As big media companies get bigger they're likely to broadcast even more homogenized programming that increasingly appeals to the lowest common denominator. 'Tis the toaster with pictures; soon, only Wonder Bread will pop out."
"In its rigid insistence on fixed rules and oftentimes arbitrary numbers, the order ignores our statutory obligation to serve the public interest, convenience and necessity in favor of the convenience of those who seek to maximize the money they can extract from the private sale of the public airwaves."
"Now some argue that the threat to American democracy is overblown since it's so strong and resilient. Our democracy is strong - it's not about to crumble - does it mean we can afford to weaken it? Doesn't it matter that only half our citizens vote? Does the way the media works today have anything to do with that?"
"Today's bottom line is spelling an open season on consolidation. In place of our once-powerful cross-media limits only 2.3% of the American population will now receive full protection that they will have diverse sources. In contrast, the markets for all remaining cross-media protections have been entirely lifted represents 72.5% of the population. While I agree that some consolidation may be warranted in the very top markets, the the leap from protecting 100% of the population with full protections to less than 3% is pretty dramatic."
"Looking back on how we got here, I'm convinced that there's little else I could have done to change the outcome."