A Chat with Harold

Today Federal Communications Commissioner Harold Furchtgott-Roth gave a talk to the University of Wisconsin-Madison Public Utility Institute. The event was open to the public, so I went. When’s the next chance of a Commissioner showing up in your backyard – especially on the eve of the vote on low power radio?
After his talk was a social reception. As it wound down, I was able to corner Harold and ask about the LPFM proposal and its future. I was up-front about this site and my work, and he was surprisingly cordial and attentive. It was a good discussion.
But what I learned was disappointing. We’ve already covered the severe limitations LPFM will be saddled with, and how its potential will be reduced to nearly zero. But hearing why from the mouth of one of the five Commissioners who will soon make it so was even worse.
The Upcoming Vote
Each Commissioner used to have the right to defer an item on their agenda to the following month; I asked Furchtgott-Roth if such a move would be taken on low power radio at the Thursday meeting. He’s criticized the idea from its outset and does not like the speed at which it’s getting acted upon. “The FCC is moving way too quickly on the issue,” he said. “And we’re supposed to vote on a final rule.”
Harold frowned and shook his head, and said he probably wouldn’t attempt to defer the low power radio proposal. “It’s no use,” said Harold. The rules for postponing action on agenda items has changed – instead of each Commissioner having that power, it is now held in the hands of Chairman William Kennard alone.
“Kennard has the authority now to singlehandedly approve or reject other Commissioners’ requests to defer,” said Furchtgott-Roth. “And even if I tried, it wouldn’t happen. Out of five or so times I’ve tried to delay action on an item, I think maybe one of my requests he approved.”
You’d think this would be a good sign; Kennard can force a vote on the proposal. In Furchtgott-Roth’s words, “He’s got the votes to pass it.” But the Commission’s ultimate reasoning for approving LPFM has nothing to do with the public interest.
The most striking thing about our conversation was the number of times Furchtgott-Roth qualified everything with the word “political.” Almost as if the FCC had never considered the public interest aspects of LPFM, and was working on image alone.
In fact, the thousands of individuals who filed comments critical of the radio industry and in support of the proposal hasn’t even registered with Harold. This is where the confusion set in – his, not mine.
I wanted to make it clear that while the NAB may spin the LPFM proposal as the brainchild of radio “pirates,” that is not the truth. I also wanted to make clear that the majority of “pirates” out there right now aren’t out to flaunt the law – they’re broadcasting without a license as an act of civil disobedience.
Furchtgott-Roth seemed surprised I even brought that up. “Politically speaking, the low power radio proposal has nothing to do with pirates,” said Furchtgott-Roth.
“How could that be?,” I asked him. Could he explain, then, why there’s been a massive increase in pirate activity since the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996?
“Well, what are these people telling you?,” asked Harold. Even though many already said it in their comments, I told him again – it’s almost a mantra by now.
“There’s a general dissatisfaction among a large segment of the American public with the state of the radio industry,” I said. “The ‘hometown radio station’ is dying out; consolidation in radio following the passage of the Telecom Act has homogenized programming to the point where everything’s ‘canned’ – syndicated or automated.”
Frankly, I told Furchtgott-Roth, people are just sick and tired of the crap on the FM dial, and feel that the vast majority of the stations where they live simply aren’t serving the interests of their communities anymore. “That’s why ‘pirate’ activity is blossoming,” I said.
Harold harumphed, and looked utterly puzzled. “That’s interesting…You know, all that activity’s in Florida, anyway,” he remarked.
Boy, was he wrong – and I told him so. “You’d be surprised at how many pirate stations there are all over this country now, and their motivations are to force change,” I said.
It appears Furchtgott-Roth had no idea. He actually looked shocked for a moment. Then he repeated, “Politically, the pirates aren’t driving this proposal.”
So what is?
Special Interests Co-Opt Effort
“This has everything to do…Well, not quite everything, but most of it’s designed to appease minority ownership concerns,” said Furchtgott-Roth.
Minority ownership is a legitimate problem in the radio industry. More than 90% of the licensed radio stations in the United States are in the hands of corporations controlled by rich white men. Opportunities for minorities in the industry to make themselves and their messages heard is all but nonexistent.
The FCC is looking for a way to fix this, and it sees low power radio as the solution.
The other important factor among the majority of Commissioners has apparently been the “church lobby.” “Minority ownership is the big driving force, but there’s also been a lot of talk about giving stations to churches to broadcast their services and such,” said Harold. “I keep hearing more and more about that (from other Commissioners).”
It sounds very good politically – appease two interests that have been thorns in the Commission’s side for quite some time with one fell swoop. But, said Furchtgott-Roth, “It’s not going to happen.”
Low power radio station ownership restrictions won’t allow many of those who want a voice to have one. “They’re going to be so strict as to kill off most opportunities,” said Furchtgott-Roth. “You just wait and see.” We couldn’t get into specifics; his UW hostess was shooting dagger-eyes at me by this point for occupying so much of his time already.
Throw in restrictions on signal interference that aren’t loose enough to substantially open up the FM band, said Furchtgott-Roth, and, “The vast majority of those that want these stations won’t get them.”
“Not only will the barriers to ownership preclude it, but technically, very few LPFM licenses will be available. Those that will will be in small to medium-size markets at best – places where people could go on the air with 101 watts right now without the need for special rules,” he said.
So, among the five Commissioners who will ultimately discern the fate of low power radio, the majority are not out to make substantial change on the dial – they’re out to throw special interests a political bone, and make it look like change has happened when, in reality, there will be no change. No more, no less.
Out in the Cold
What about the “rest of us,” who see a problem with today’s radio landscape and want alternatives? The majority of people who filed comments in support of low power radio weren’t minority groups or churches. Furchtgott-Roth shrugged. “I don’t know what to tell you,” he said. “It’s not what (the LPFM proposal) is designed for.”
Will we just have to live with the problems of consolidation? Furchtgott-Roth won’t go there; in his opinion, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 isn’t to blame. “There are movements underway, both at the FCC and on Capitol Hill, to change the law,” he said. And if he had his way, Harold wouldn’t tinker with the Telecom Act. “I can work with the law the way it is.”
But the Telecom Act is part of the driving force for low power radio, I said. And if LPFM won’t fix the problem, why not go to the source? “My definition of serving the public interest means following the law,” Harold replied. While it sounded like a Catch-22, I didn’t challenge him on it. Maybe I should have. But I couldn’t – the social reception was over, and it was time to go.
“Well, then, maybe you better pay closer attention to what the folks in your Enforcement Bureau tell you when they report that they can’t deal with all the pirates,” I said, “because they’re going to come screaming for more money and men. The FCC shouldn’t delude itself into thinking that they’re all just going to go away – especially when your ‘solution’ isn’t much of a solution at all.”
“You know, you’re probably right,” said Furchtgott-Roth. Then he sighed. “They’re already overwhelmed with work.”
“So what do I tell everyone?,” I asked. “Where are we supposed to go from here?”
That’s when FCC Commissioner Harold Furchtgott-Roth hit me with the kicker: “I honestly don’t know,” he said. “You know more about this than I do.”
I would have felt pleased about the compliment – if it wasn’t given under such depressing circumstances.