FCC: New Faces, More Money

There are some big changes on the horizon for the Federal Communications Commission. The changes look ominously negative, but the agency’s general inattentiveness to the renewed insurgence of unlicensed broadcasting can only help the free radio movement as a whole.
The first big change is a personnel shift occurring at the very top of the FCC: three of the five Commissioners have either resigned or are on their way out and president Bush II has formally announced his picks to fill the slots.
The appointments will give Republicans a working 3-2 majority on the Commission. Pending confirmation by the U.S. Senate, a Bush-league FCC is expected to continue the wholesale cell of the public airwaves to the highest bidder; Chairman Michael Powell has already all but declared regulation a dirty word, preferring to let “market forces” (read: corporate interests) rule the roost and direct the construction of tomorrow’s media environment.
All three of the new Commissioners-to-be are Washington insiders who know how to massage the government into giving up booty to plundering profiteers. Here’s a snapshot of each (campaign donation data courtesy of Opensecrets.org):
Kathleen Abernathy: A longtime player inside the Beltway, Abernathy has successfully negotiated the revolving door between corporations and the government regulators who supposedly watch over them. Her initial experience with the FCC came when she worked under former Commissioner James Quello in the early-to-mid 1990s.
Abernathy then left the FCC to become a lobbyist for telecom giants U.S. West and Airtouch Communications, among others. Her latest position has been as Vice President of Public Policy for Virginia-based Broadband Office Communications, Inc.
During the 2000 election cycle, Kathleen Abernathy made a total of $1,250 in political donations. $750 was funneled into Broadband Office’s lobbying coffers while another $500 went directly to the Republican National Committee.
Kevin Martin: Martin’s appointment to the FCC could be seen as a case of political patronage. He served as legal advisor to outgoing Commissioner Harold Furchtgott-Roth until leaving the FCC to work on the Bush presidential campaign. Martin was also the Deputy Counsel for the Bush-Cheney transition team.
Martin is expected to behave as an “appropriate replacement” for Furchtgott-Roth – the only Commissioner to completely oppose the FCC’s low power radio plans.
In June of 1999, Martin made an early campaign contribution of $1,000 to the Bush campaign; he’s easy to spot among federal campaign spending returns because his occupation at the time is listed as “FCC.”
Michael Copps: The lone Democrat nominee among the three, Copps also has a long history of working the system in favor of corporate interests. He’s a former staffer of South Carolina Senator Ernest Hollings, the ranking Democrat on the Senate committee with direct oversight powers over the FCC. Such connections should make his confirmation an easy one.
Since leaving his position on Capitol Hill, Michael Copps has served as Assistant Secretary of Trade Development at the FCC’s parent Department of Commerce. This made him a major player in the negotiations over international trade agreements and the development of the World Trade Association (WTO)’s powers. He was also a major lobbying force in the 2000 Congressional decision to normalize trade relations with China.
Copps also shelled out some cash in the 2000 presidential race, donating $1,000 to the Democratic National Committee.
Follow the Money
The FCC has also released its budget proposal for the 2002 fiscal year. Overall, the agency is asking for an $18.6 million increase in funds, up to a total of $248,545,000. This is an approximately 8% increase from the FCC’s FY 2001 budget.
Most of the increase is earmarked for technology improvements: the FCC has been one of the leading federal agencies to embrace doing business online and to keep the trend going it says it needs to replace obsolete computer equipment and upgrade its current systems.
More specifically, in the area of enforcement, the FCC is asking for a $5.9 million increase – this would give the agency a total of about $78.8 million to spend on enforcement efforts and programs.
This does sound like quite a chunk of change, but after first blush the news does get better. While the FCC’s initial request is not very detailed, there are some telling figures which point to some positives in the war on free radio.
The most interesting deals with staffing: the FCC’s new budget does not make any attempt to add staff to the Enforcement Bureau, which would remain static at 361 full-time employees.
No new troops on the ground in the fight against “pirate radio” means a continued backlog of cases – this is good news, as the number of unlicensed stations going on the air continues to rise.
The agency is already overwhelmed with work trying to keep the FM band clear of rogue stations; a spike in activity on the shortwave bands over the last year can only add insult to injury in this regard.
In the Mass Media Bureau, which handles radio regulatory issues (like the new LPFM service), the FCC is actually planning a small downsizing. It’s nothing as severe as the 44 employees cut between the 2000 and 2001 budget cycles, but there is a planned reduction of four staffers, down to a total of 167.
There’s usually some amount of padding built into such budget figures, and it’s anyone’s guess just how much Congress will meddle with them – but at least there are no signs that the powers-that-be plan to launch a major offensive on unlicensed broadcasting this year.