Lawmaker Sees Both Sides of Broadcast Legislation

Times Staff Writer

When Greg Walden joined most of his colleagues in the House of Representatives in approving a dramatic increase in broadcast indecency fines, he understood his vote could end up costing him money.

The Oregon Republican owns and operates five small radio stations and knows from experience just how easily the wrong word can slip off the tongue and onto the airwaves.

As the only broadcast license holder in Congress, Walden has a unique perspective on indecency and other issues important to the industry, enabling him to explain them on Capitol Hill.

"There is an incredible lack of understanding about the broadcast media in this Congress," said Walden, 49, who got his start in broadcasting more than three decades ago as a janitor at his father's rural Oregon stations. "I wish that the people who voted on these things and enforced them actually had to spend some time in a truly small-market environment."

At Walden's Oregon stations in Hood River and the Dalles, the person in charge of censoring obscenities from syndicated programs occasionally is busy with other jobs -- or can be so stunned by an unexpected expletive that the seven-second delay ticks away before the word can be bleeped.

Like many in the broadcasting industry, Walden has complained that indecency rulings by the Federal Communications Commission have been inconsistent. For instance, the FCC allowed graphic language on the TV broadcast of Steven Spielberg's gritty World War II film "Saving Private Ryan" but issued fines for similar words on ABC's "NYPD Blue."

Those inconsistencies are the basis of a legal challenge of recent FCC rulings announced in April by the ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC networks.

"Just tell me what the boundaries are," Walden said. "Can I use that word or can't I? Don't tell me I can use it if it's this movie, but I can't use it if it's this program. How do I ever know?"

Nevertheless, Walden joined the overwhelming congressional majority in voting last month to increase the maximum indecency fines from $32,500 to $325,000.

Only 35 lawmakers opposed the change, including just one Republican. Walden's eastern Oregon district is strongly Republican, and he's a loyal backer of the House GOP leadership, which pushed for the higher fines after Janet Jackson's breast was briefly exposed on CBS during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show.

"I recognized that something needed to be done, to have a little bigger hammer for the FCC," Walden said. "So now my concern is they don't overreact at the commission and start issuing fines that just put broadcasters out of business."

Noting that many small-market radio stations are worth less than the new maximum fine, Walden had inserted a provision into an earlier version of the legislation that encouraged the FCC to consider market size when levying fines. But the provision didn't make it into the final version signed into law by President Bush.

Still, having someone in Congress who can convey those concerns is important to the industry, said Dennis Wharton of the National Assn. of Broadcasters. "They might not listen to a lobbyist as much as they would somebody who really understands the business as an operator," Wharton said of lawmakers. "He understands the business more than anybody."

When a House subcommittee last fall was finishing legislation covering the digital TV transition, Walden pointed out a technical glitch affecting transponders that help beam broadcast signals through mountainous areas. The bill was amended to fix the problem, said Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), the subcommittee's chairman.

"He brought some things to light that didn't come up in the hearings we had, or in the first couple of drafts of the legislation," Upton said. "He knows his stuff."

Walden, who was elected to the House in 1998, learned the radio business from the floors up.

He began as a part-time janitor at KIHR-AM in Hood River when he was 15 years old. Walden went on to fill in for on-air personalities during vacations and on weekend shifts. He did local news, hosted a community talk show and sold ads.

Walden earned a journalism degree from the University of Oregon in 1981 and took over his father's two stations in 1986. He has purchased three more since then. He and his wife, Mylene, run the stations under Columbia Gorge Broadcasters Inc. and MSW Communications, which combined are worth $1 million to $5 million, according to Walden's 2006 congressional financial disclosure statement.

Walden says he still does some "light engineering" around the stations on weekends, trying to fix problems. But one problem that needs some heavier re-engineering, he said, is how the FCC handles indecency.

"There was a long period where the FCC didn't set the boundaries and stations went way beyond community standards," Walden said. When the FCC started compensating a few years ago with heftier and more frequent fines, broadcasters became confused about the indecency boundaries.

With the maximum fines now increased tenfold, Walden wants the FCC to use discretion, recognizing that accidents happen -- and that a $325,000 fine could bankrupt a small station.

He likes to tell the story of an interview that aired on one of his stations years ago. A local Lions Club official was asked about the group's Fourth of July festivities.

"Without a pause, the guy said, 'We have a [expletive] of stuff planned,' " Walden said. The interviewer was so stunned that he failed to bleep out the word during the seven-second delay.

Nothing ever came of the incident, but its implication in a new world of six-figure fines worries Walden.

FCC officials have argued that even an isolated slip of the tongue can harm children by exposing them to indecent language and that broadcasters have the responsibility to use delays to keep a "single and gratuitous" expletive from airing.

Given the FCC's control over his broadcast licenses, Walden said he was cautious about speaking directly with commissioners because it could be viewed as a conflict of interest. Walden said he always publicly mentions his FCC licenses when he votes or considers broadcasting issues.

But Walden's message to the FCC is clear: Be careful with the heavier indecency fines.

"I'm just saying, 'OK, you've now got this authority. Don't go be stupid about it,' " Walden said. "Understand how these stations operate, differentiate among them and look for ways to give clear guidance as to what's acceptable."

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