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Serving The Public Through Radio

Wednesday, July 3, 2002 at 5:42 PM

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The airways that belong to the public and radio stations are required to use them to serve citizens. But some folks are now questioning whether station owners are taking the responsibility seriously. At one time the Federal Government forced radio stations to air a certain amount of news and public service announcements. But the rules were relaxed through deregulation. The government has also allowed corporations to buy up hundreds of radio stations. Critics say the loss of local ownership is also the reason for a decline in local, non-entertainment programming. 90.3 WCPN's Mike West looks into the history of radio and public service.

Mike West: The golden era of radio… when listeners could hear everything from drama to comedy and local news and public affairs programs. Many stations had their own news departments and were forced by law to include programs with local content. Hourly public service announcements were common, and maybe even a “community calendar.” Norman Wain is a former Cleveland radio station owner. His properties included WIXY 1260 and WNCX.

Norman Wain: Localism is a very big part of the history of radio and it all got started in the Communications Act of 1934. In that Act, the words the public interest, convenience and necessity comes up over and over and over again.

MW: But as the decades rolled by, more stations started broadcasting via satellite which allowed many stations to air the same program or disc jockey who was located in a far-away studio. Local programming also suffered when the Federal Communications Commission relaxed rules on non-entertainment programs. But Wain says the government still considers the airways to be the property of citizens and their use is supposed to be in the public interest.

NW: It was Congress’ intent in that act to set up and create the Federal Communication Commission and there was a clear mandate there that the Commission make sure that this new technology, whether it was radio, TV, or anything would be operated in the public service in that the airwaves were considered a public franchise and therefore everything had to be operated in the public good.

MW: To serve the public interest, the Federal Communications Commission still requires station managers to conduct quarterly community ascertainment surveys, then air programs in response to those issues. But the reports go into a public file but are seldom refered to unless a citizen comes by the radio station and demands to take a look. Some radio insiders say the government doesn’t have the time or the desire to make sure station owners really are serving the community. Critics of the Deregulation Act of 1996 also blame diminishing non-entertainment public programming on corporate ownership. The ‘96 act allowed multiple ownership of stations for the first time. That resulted in large corporations that now run hundreds of stations. Wain says the bottom line has been fewer minutes of local content, even though government leaders have said public service was a priority.

NW: Through democratic and republican administrations since 1934 the general wisdom was, that diversity and voices and diversity and control for the airwaves was in the public interest.

MW: But even when the rules were more strict, was radio more responsive to the public? Some say yes. John Gorman is the former program director of WHK and WMMS. He says at one time AM stations were required to use 8% of their air time for public service, including news, public service announcements and public affairs programs; and FM stations had a quota of 6%. Gorman says it was a hassle, but management knew it was worth the trouble.

John Gorman: It was always the joke back then - fulfill the commitment. But the fact is if you did public affairs and public service right it would actually help the radio station. And in those days you have to ascertain the community you have to get out a couple of times a year and interview community leaders and find out what the major problems were and the topics of the community. You had to provide the F.C.C. detailed information in terms of not only your public affairs programming, but specific what you covered the amount of time you spent on it.

MW: In past decades, most stations regularly scheduled public service announcements and news updates, but that has mostly gone the way of the vinyl record. In the Cleveland market, we talked to the managers of nine radio stations. All say they accept community messages for things like meetings, blood drives and bake sales. But admitted that P.S.A.’s are only read as time allows, and are not scheduled or mandatory. There are 37 radio outlets in northeast Ohio but many did not return our calls. As far as public affairs programs, which are mostly long interviews, Gorman says those public affairs programs are traditionally aired on early Sunday mornings for fear they would hurt prime time ratings. But that was not always the case.

JG: It never hurt my ratings - back in the 70s I used to run a public affairs program 3 times a week in afternoon drive. It was unheard of. We also did a public affairs program in the Sunday morning graveyard like everybody else, we did it from 8 to 9 AM and we really went out and found the right people. It wasn’t fulfill the commitment, it wasn’t rerunning the same P.S.A. or running the same public affairs programs other stations were running.

MW: Before deregulation, broadcast licenses had to be renewed every 3 years. The process required stations ask for public comment, you may remember hearing these messages on the radio and TV. But now that only happens every 8 years. Gorman says the change has left the community with less power over who controls what we hear and he thinks the fcc has adopted a hands off attitude.

JG: Radio once did belong to the people and that’s why the F.C.C. could take your license away if you were no longer serving the community or you violated certain community standards the F.C.C. had the right to at least put your license under review. It was a much different world back then. You had to really be conscience of the community.

MW: Gorman says today public affairs is on the honor system and enforcement is a joke.

JG: The rules are basically still there, but it’s sort of “we don’t have to police you” - we don’t have to, we know you are grown up people and your just going to follow the rules the way you did before and that’s why we hear all this news and public affairs on commercial radio today… ha, ha, ha…

MW: The Federal Communications Commission refused to be recorded for this story. We were told the agency only had one person who was allowed to be recorded and that she was on maternity leave and not available. But a spokesman insisted that the F.C.C. still required radio stations to offer “programming responsive to issues facing the community and demands documentation of significant efforts.”

But at least one broadcast expert feels the government should not waste time tell radio what to air. Tim Smith is a professor of journalism at Kent State University.

Tim Smith: The problem became that the government got it’s hands on the content side of the business and it didn’t need to. There wasn’t any necessity that the government become involved content it would have been sufficient that the government said “here’s your frequency, stick with it.” This is your assigned amount of power don’t exceed it.

MW: Smith says no matter what the government does the marketplace should and does dictate content. He says if broadcasters know people want news and public service they will air it, and sponsors will pay the cost.

TS: The broadcasters would have aired messages that say that the boy scouts are having and pancake breakfast, newspapers do they’re not required to and they it routinely. It’s good business. The marketplace would have regulated the broadcaster the same as it regulates newspapers. The idea that the airwaves belong to the public is an interesting phenomenon and it’s sort of an abstract concept, but what does it mean?

MW: There are signs the government may be taking a bigger interest how radio is being programmed, or at least how corporate broadcasters are behaving. U.S. Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin has introduced legislation aimed at limiting the power of big radio to control the music industry and demand payola, or the fee stations charge before they will air certain songs. The bill is also raising questions whether allowing a single corporation to own 1,200 radio stations is really in the public interest. In Cleveland, Mike West, 90.3 WCPN News.

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