It’s an odd thing. People care about what they watch on their television sets, listen to on their radios or download from the Internet. But try to arouse them on the topic of the new communications law now in its final stages in Congress, making everything even more expensive and less democratic, and their eyes film over.
The last time Congress addressed major legislation of the communications industry was back in 1934. Before then, nonprofit groups had argued with some success that the radio spectrum was a public asset and its commercialism abhorrent to the very idea of public broadcasting in any society with democratic pretensions. But in 1934, the radio lobby carried all before it. Politicians were already terrified of the commercial broadcasters, with good reason. And so Congress determined that a few large corporations would control the medium for the purpose of making money.
Progress being what it is, we now find ourselves facing a 1996 telecommunications bill that, amid an almost total dearth of public scrutiny, will determine that a few very large corporations will control telecommunications for the purpose of making even more money.
The new telecommunications bill is indeed a license for the giants to print dollars-- “corporate welfare,” as Sen. Bob Dole remarked on Wednesday. Under parts of this bill, agreed to by all relevant parties, the big radio companies will clean up, having been given virtually unlimited freedom to buy more stations in major markets. This means that one corporation will be able to corner all the frequencies valued by advertisers in a single zone and thus be “competitive in today’s marketplace,” a phrase cognate with the word “reform” in its modern usage.
This brings me to the present chairman of the FCC, Reed Hundt. He went to St. Albans in Washington with Al Gore, to Yale Law School with Bill Clinton and was ensconced in the FCC chairmanship with vows of active pursuit of the concept of “public service"--a mandate theoretically incumbent on the FCC to uphold, in marked contrast to its actual procedures.
Hundt soon discovered that in the current era, “public service” is a concept most comical in its outlandish antiquity. Last fall, he gave a number of speeches confessing his disillusion. At the Pittsburgh School of Law on Sept. 21, he said the FCC’s “current implementation of the public interest mandate is “intellectually indefensible” and either “constitutionally intolerable” or “a meaningless hoax on the American public.”
After some swipes at Rush Limbaugh in a later speech for issuing the “sort of disinformation that damages our democracy” and “dumbs down our civic discourse,” he argued that “in a real sense, Limbaugh’s freedom to inform--and to disinform--depends on our government’s commitment to ensuring a diversity of voices over the public airwaves in both local and national markets.”
But Hundt made it clear that he regarded the upcoming concentration of radio ownership as decisive sabotage of any such commitment to diversity.
The current legislative situation is hopeless. Forceful advocacy of public service broadcasting went out of vogue almost a generation ago. But Hundt could do something to salvage the ideals he professed when he took the FCC chair. His agency is currently trying to shut down “microbroadcasting,” tiny FM stations putting out signals up to 30 or 40 watts, with a range up to 12 miles. There are now several hundred such microbroadcast stations across the country. Since they can cost as little as $1,000 to set up, ordinary folk can offer material and air time to their local communities. The FCC’s designated target is Stephen Dunifer, against whom the agency now seeks a permanent injunction from broadcasting his Free Radio Berkeley. If successful, injunctions against other microbroadcasters will presumably follow.
Dunifer’s argument is that microbroadcasting should be given legal standing; the FCC’s arguments against it, based on the grounds of inefficient use of the spectrum, are baseless and prompted by the fears of the billionaire broadcasters that microradio will seduce their captive audiences away. The FCC has claimed that it is not “in the public interest” to have low-power FM.
But Hundt has openly confessed that the FCC commitment to the “public interest” is a farce and that ownership concentration erodes democracy. If he wants to be more than a soon-forgotten rubber stamp to the broadcast lobby, he should license the microbroadcasters without delay and permit at least one ray of light amid the darkness of “reform.”