There’s only one way that commercial broadcasters can get away with their shameless chutzpah: as gatekeepers to the airwaves, they’ve got serious political power, enough to lord it over a Congress that is too craven to rein them in. This thought is prompted by the story in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal (July 25, 2005) describing how broadcasters are outraged, just outraged, that the new satellite radio networks, XM and Sirius, are actually providing their own localized content! Can you imagine anything so unfair?
What makes this objection by broadcasters so odious is that they have been shirking local programming for years. Radio has essentially abandoned local programming because of the cost-efficiencies of cookie-cutter national programming…. and now they cry bloody murder when upstart competitors dare to offer the most modest localized service (weather and traffic reports). In a perversion of their “public trustee” role, some radio stations are now using our airwaves to run self-serving ads that denigrate their satellite competitors. (Where’s the Fairness Doctrine when we really need it?) The ads end with a cynical tagline: “Brought to you by your hometown station.” Ugh.
Most Americans would be surprised to learn that localism is supposed to be heart of our commercial broadcast system. Under the 1934 Communications Act, still the statutory charter for broadcasting, broadcast stations are affirmatively supposed to serve the needs of their local communities. For decades, local service was a criterion for the renewal of broadcast licenses. By FCC mandate, stations once canvassed community leaders and groups what they wanted on the air. Stations produced their own news, public affairs and cultural programming, many of them quite good.
And now? After a decade of deregulation, you’re lucky to get much more than snippets of weather and occasional traffic reports from your local radio station. Forget about substantive news reporting or original local programming. The industry has become so consolidated that it has become economically irresistible to phase out local news departments, standardize music playlists across the nation, and jettison musically knowledgeable deejays who program independently. Some radio chains have even devised faux-local news programs – national feeds that drop in a few local stories in order to appear local.
The story of how broadcasters have amassed their political power, and how they routinely exercise it against the public interest, is a story that greatly needs to be told. Fortunately, J.H. Snider of the New American Foundation has done so in an excellent new book, Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick: How Local TV Broadcasters Exert Political Power (iUniverse). His story focuses on TV stations, not radio, but the dynamics are very similar (indeed, local radio and TV stations may be owned by the same corporations).
“The distinctive genius of the local TV broadcast industry lobby,” Snider writes, “is that it carries an extremely powerful stick – control of the most influential public affairs medium in America – yet when lobbying for its industry interests, can wield that resource without leaving a verifiable trace.”
At 619 pages, Snider’s book may be intimidating to some readers. The length stems from Snider’s rigorous scholarship and detail, however, and is fully justified. Besides offering a political theory of broadcaster power and its effects on Congress and the FCC, Snider documents how broadcast lobbyists work the influence game in Congress; how they won billions of dollars of spectrum, for free, ostensibly to convert to digital transmissions; how they have shaken down tax breaks and additional subsidies from Congress.
Despite its sobering critique, the very appearance of Snider’s book is a hopeful sign. It is evidence that the media reform movement, after years of marginal influence, is beginning to make some waves in mainstream political circles. And this may be because the movement is no longer just about media reform, but about citizen-based media production. Suddenly, thanks to the Internet and innovative software, citizens can be heard in their own voices, and amass their own audiences for all sorts of non-commercial purposes. That is making all the difference in the world.