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Prepping For Protest: Activists discussed media ownership and other policy issues at this workshop at Louden Nelson Center last week, in preparation for the FCC's public hearing at the Monterey Conference Center on July 21.

Are You the Media?

The FCC is holding one of only six national hearings on media ownership in Monterey on July 21, and a network of activists is converging on the coast to protest the onslaught of consolidation. The question is: What is 'local' media, anyway? Why does it matter? And why doesn't the FCC care?

By Rachel Anne Goodman

'The gathering of more and more outlets under one owner clearly can be an impediment to a free and independent press.' --Walter Cronkite

I'm driving along Felton-Empire Road with my 8-year-old daughter, Micaela--whose favorite radio station, for some reason alien to me, is 101.7 FM., "The Beach, your local station for the Monterey Bay!" As I endure Avril Lavigne singing "Don't Tell Me," I posit that we've heard that song a lot recently, actually every time we're in the car. "That's because people really like it, Mom!" she replies. In other words, they're giving people what they want. How can I explain to her that Lavigne's promotion company paid a Nashville radio station to play that song three times an hour, thus buying it a place on the Billboard Top 10? That there are plenty of great singers who will never get played on "The Beach" who live right here in Santa Cruz? And that the voice she's hearing say the word "local" is actually in Monterey; and if there was a fire or other emergency here right now, we wouldn't know about it from listening to this station?

We're fond in the Monterey Bay area of gloating about the six noncommercial radio stations we receive. (KKUP, KUSP, KSPB, KAZU, KZSC and KHDC). Not bad for the nation's 121st biggest market. (The largest is New York.) Nearly all of our "noncoms" have local programming, from shows such as KZSC's Closet Free Radio to the kaleidoscope of alternative music shows, to KUSP's Talk of the Bay (which I host weekly).

But public radio doesn't always mean local radio. KAZU-FM, which cut most local programs two years ago and is now mostly automated, followed a trend toward all-NPR formats that's swept public radio over the past decade.

In the '80s, I worked at a station in Virginia where I was told by the station manager to stop reading local announcements "because they make us sound too provincial." Still, at least there were real live humans at the microphones. That manager now runs the all-automated, all-satellite classical giant KUSC in Los Angeles, where the mic breaks are all pre-recorded, and there are no live announcers at all.

It makes you wonder: What happens when the big one hits? In Minot, N.D., a chemical spill sent 100 people to the hospital, but none of the radio stations had live announcers who could warn the public. Many listeners called anyway, sure that the voices they heard issued from living, breathing humans, and not an automation machine running pre-recorded announcements.

And emergencies aren't the only issue. James Madison wrote, "A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or perhaps both." Put another way, unless you know the county is considering locating its new dump near your house, you might not get fired up about the county's supervisors election.

A USC/Annenberg School study from 2002 showed that only 44 percent of the 10,000 news broadcasts studied contained any campaign coverage at all, and only 14 percent of the campaign stories that were aired focused on local elections. The research also suggests that larger station group owners air less local campaign news than smaller and midsize station group owners.

The Feds Are Coming

At this point, it is hardly news that the amount of local broadcast news is shrinking across the country, but it is news that the federal government is coming to town to ask how you feel about it. When it comes to the Monterey Conference Center on July 21, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) wants to know what it can do to encourage--or perhaps force--broadcasters to do more local programming. You know, short of breaking up the media monopolies.

The FCC's visit comes just weeks after a major blow to chairman Michael Powell's agenda. The son of Colin Powell has presided over the commission during a partisan era where media giants have been allowed to grow bigger. Last year, the FCC lifted a 1975 ban on owning both a newspaper and a television or radio station in the same market. It also allowed one broadcaster to control 45 percent of a market.

Together, these rules would have allowed one company to own three TV stations, eight radio stations and the monopoly newspaper in a single market. The vote was split 3-2 in favor down party lines. Not so partisan was the angry blizzard of mail from more than 3 million Americans incensed at the giveaway of their airwaves. FCC commissioner Jonathan Adelstein called the 2003 ruling "The most hated decision in history." Echoing that opinion, the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in June shot down the FCC ownership rules, citing "irrational assumptions and inconsistencies," and sent them back to the policy drawing board.

"It was probably the most important court decision in the history of the media democracy movement." says Adelstein, "It stopped in its tracks the more extreme rollback of ownership regulations. It gives us a chance to go back and enter what people are saying in our decision. And I'm sure we'll hear a lot of wisdom out in Monterey. The law is that we're supposed to serve the public."

But before you unfurl your "mission accomplished" banner, consider that even the old rules were not particularly popular among those concerned about local media ownership.

"It only means that we have set our media system back to the old status quo--which was already bad," says media critic and author Robert McChesney.

But Jeff Perlstein of San Francisco's Media Alliance says this is a historic opportunity.

"There's a renewed hope that there is some openness to change," says Perlstein. "The long-term work is to break up some of these monopolies and foster more local ownership."

One problem, however, might be that the FCC doesn't think there's a problem.

"Never in the U.S. has the media been less consolidated," says Jon Cody, Powell's legal adviser. "What you've seen is not only a 100 percent increase in the number of media outlets in each community, but there has been a corresponding increase in independent owners."

Is he counting cable, Internet and low-power FM? Because, in fact, the broadcast media is controlled by the smallest number of megacorporations in history. Ben Bagdikian's book The New Media Monopoly (which has to be updated and republished every year) lists five; AOL/Time Warner, Walt Disney Co./ABC, Viacom, News Corp., and Bertelsmann, which control 80 percent of prime time programming.

Policing the Police: Jeff Perlstein of San Francisco's Media Alliance has been heavily involved in the effort to organize media activists around the FCC's Monterey hearing. He says he has hope that the FCC can be persuaded to begin going after monopolies and fostering local ownership.

Pump Up the Volume

Who would have thought the latest anti-corporate battleground would be Monterey? While not expected to equal Seattle's WTO protests in numbers or volume, activists all over the West are preparing to make some noise here. To them, media consolidation is the broadcast equivalent of mono-crop agriculture; it limits presentation of diverse local viewpoints, and it stifles debate critical of the corporate agenda.

This is one of only six hearings being held across the country that are organized by the FCC localism task force, whose stated goal is to find out how broadcasters are serving local communities.

"They need to do a better job," says Perlstein. "That means more local news, local public affairs, town hall forums, and we believe that depends on local ownership."

The Media Alliance is working to ensure that the public actually gets heard at the hearings.

"We're working with folks in Salinas, from Radio Bilingue, Barrios Unidos, Radio Campesino, labor unions, various peace coalitions, the NAACP, and a broad cross-section of people from all over," says Perlstein. "I heard last night that some people are even coming from Portland."

The Newspaper Guild/Communications Workers of America is planning a rally and march in front of the hearings. Staff representative Linda Cearley says she wants to tell the FCC that diversity of ownership is necessary to preserve coverage of women's, minority and labor issues.

"The fewer owners there are, the more power they have to choose what we hear about," says Cearley. "The only time you hear about labor issues is when there's a strike."

Man of 1,000 Dances: KUSP music director Rob Mullen (pictured here and on the cover) also hosts a music show on Friday nights. Many NPR-affiliated stations have increasingly been dropping such locally programmed music shows in favor of nationally syndicated content.

Localism, Central Coast Style

What does "localism" in broadcasting mean? Local owner? Local host? Local guests? Local issues?

"Localism means providing opportunities for local self-expression," FCC commissioner Adelstein says, "It means reaching out, developing and promoting local performing artists, musicians and other talent. It means dedicating the resources to discover and address the unique needs of every segment of the community."

Californians have always had a somewhat ambiguous relationship to the concept of "local."

"What is a local, really, and what is of concern to everyone?" asks David Anton-Savage, manager of the Rio Theatre and host of the Unfiltered Camels show on KZSC. "Water issues, surely. But in terms of what's of cultural interest to locals, so many things seem to effect us nationally and internationally."

In 1994, KUSP cut its nightly local newscast, citing the cost, and has no immediate plans to bring it back. Still, KUSP's schedule is 70 percent local, bucking what seems to be a trend among National Public Radio affiliates. Terry Green, the station's new general manager, says, "Pending the creation of the new strategic plan, the KUSP board of directors didn't want to change that. Still, whatever we do should reflect listeners' preferences."

Bonnie Jean Primbsch, KUSP's public affairs director, says the heart of KUSP has always been the community.

"We've been strongly identified from the beginning as a place where the community meets," she says.

But a challenge for larger stations like KUSP comes when "local" means the whole region from Los Gatos to Paso Robles. It's an issue Primbsch has to tangle with every day.

"If you just talk about the fight for ownership of water in Felton, you may serve the Felton listeners perfectly, but bore Hollister listeners to tears," she says. "And you'll have missed the boat, too. Because what's interesting about that story is not the legal wrangle of the week, but the fact that the company that owns Felton's water also owns water in communities all over the world--including other places in our listening area like Monterey. So there's an opportunity for all our listeners to think in a new way about something they may have taken for granted; there's a sense that this could be you, and if it were, what would you do about it?"

Ideally, media can provide the kind of bird's-eye view on the cultural and civic life of our region that no individual can achieve. It truly is our electronic commons, and unlike the Internet or cable, there's no admission fee.

You wouldn't think KSCO-AM (1080) and KUSP-FM (88.9) had much in common. On the former, you're likely to find Red Hot Gun Talk and conservatives like Michael "Savage" Weiner railing about tax-and-spend liberals and getting the government off our backs. On the latter, it's NPR's Anne Garrels reporting from Baghdad or John Sandidge talking about medical marijuana, and getting the government off our backs.

But both are stations trying to balance national and local programming, and both want to stay locally owned. KSCO owner Michael Zwerling says he's a staunch supporter of local radio. KSCO has the only local radio morning newscast, and regularly peppers news in between its talk shows.

However, like NPR on KUSP, it's the syndicated shows that bring in listeners, ratings and revenues.

"Rush [Limbaugh] brought us our original audience. These big ratings franchises attract people to the station." Says Zwerling. "If we're doing something that's worthwhile that you can't get anywhere else, that's our local programming. We're not going to survive unless we serve the public. I wanted to be a real community radio station."

KUSP's Primbsch seconds that. "Our obligation to present local programming is such that if we stopped doing it, we wouldn't be KUSP anymore."

Whose News?: Bonnie Jean Primbsch, KUSP's public affairs director, says her station is committed to local programming, but that the question of what 'local' means can get tricky when an outlet's coverage area spreads over hundreds of miles.

Target: Clear Channel

To consolidation critics, Clear Channel has become the poster child for all that is wrong about media mergers. The company, through its vertical integration practice of buying up stadiums, record labels, concert production companies, billboards and the like, has achieved a godlike ability to anoint the next big pop star.

It's been embroiled in political controversy, too. After 9/11, Clear Channel stations circulated the famous list of "questionable songs" to its radio stations, including 120 seditious titles, such as Peter, Paul and Mary's "Leaving on a Jet Plane" and Oingo Boingo's "Dead Man's Party," that were likely to generate controversy, and critics called it censorship. (The company blamed the circulation of the list on an overzealous program manager, but The New York Times reported that an early version of it did originate in Clear Channel's corporate offices.)

The latest political flap involves Clear Channel denying billboard space across the street from the upcoming Republican Convention to a group with an antiwar message, because of controversy over a stylized bomb image on the ad. (Clear Channel reached a compromise with the group, Project Billboard, last week, after the nonprofit had threatened to sue. Under the terms of the compromise, the bomb image will not be displayed.)

From Clear Channel's website: "We believe we have an obligation for the well-being of the communities in which we live. We further believe the future success of our communities and the industries where we do business is dependent upon the responsibility we feel, the high standards we set and the positive impact our actions have."

In six years, Clear Channel, based in San Antonio, Texas, has grown from owning 44 radio stations nationwide to 1,239. So how deep is our market being, as it were, penetrated? Clear Channel owns six radio stations in our area, with a 29 percent share of the market.

In the TV arena, this area has three 11pm local newscasts competing for viewers. KSBW, KION and KCBA collectively have 70 percent of the viewers in our area.

Clear Channel owns KION-TV Channel 46 and "co-manages" KCBA-TV Channel 35, the Fox affiliate. Together, the two stations comprise 30 percent of the local television market. Both stations share a building, a program director and news director, and the evening news sets are in the same room, with different anchors and visuals, but the same cameras and equipment.

KSBW dominates with 40 percent of the market. The Salinas-based NBC affiliate is owned by the Hearst/Argyle Corporation, which owns 28 other television stations around the country, in addition to the San Francisco Chronicle.

KSBW-TV station manager Joseph Heston says he's proud of his station's brand of localism.

"I'm honored the FCC is coming all the way to this market to see how well we're doing. We're doing way beyond what you'd find in most markets this size."

Heston says the deep pockets of the Hearst/Argyle group enable KSBW to have three live "receive" sites for gathering news from south San Jose to King City, and from Santa Cruz to Big Sur.

"We would not be able to have that kind of support if we were owned by Mel and Bob's down the street," says Heston.

KSBW airs 24.5 hours of local news and information a week, and has the only morning and noon newscasts in the region. "We believe that you can do well by doing good. If you look at not just Hearst stations, but leading stations across the country, those that provide local support and local news and local information, are the stations that are most successful in their market."

Michael Powell's legal assistant Cody says his research bears that out.

"The bigger the corporate entity that owns that local station, the more it produces better and higher quality local news," he says. "Television stations owned by newspapers produced 50 percent more local news, and had won 200 to 300 percent more journalism awards."

But the FCC also found that 35 percent of television stations in a given market had no local news coverage at all.

To discuss the benefits to the public of the free market, first you have to have one. Even Michael Zwerling, owner KSCO, a station with a decidedly free-market point of view, says the government ought to reign in the media monopolies.

"I'm a free market kind of guy," Zwerling says, "but I think there should be limits on numbers of ownership. The current FCC rule that permits the majority of a radio market to be controlled by one owner basically thumbs its nose at the antitrust laws."

License, Please

"We have first amendment issues," says KSBW's Heston of FCC regulation. "We don't want to be told how many hours of news we have to do. The FCC is certainly capable of finding a bad operator based on the procedure that's in place now. At license renewal time, if broadcasters aren't doing enough, they don't get renewed," Would that it were true.

Though broadcast licenses are bought and sold for hundreds of millions of dollars, the Federal Communications Act says broadcasters are temporary trustees of the public's airwaves. Licenses, given by the FCC for eight years, are supposed to be renewed only if the broadcaster can prove "whether the public interest, convenience, and necessity will be served."

But the amount of "proving" that stations must do has shrunk to a few pages in a public file, and most renewals are handled with a four-page checklist that never mentions programming, local or otherwise. "The public interest" was once protected by a plethora of "behavioral" regulations including the "Fairness Doctrine" governing political balance, children's programming hours and minority ownership rules. But, during the Reagan era, most of these got tossed out in favor of the free market. There has never been a rule dictating how much local programming a station must air, and that's one area the FCC is exploring.

FCC regulations don't say how much local programming or what kind a broadcaster must air, only that "every three months, a list of programs that have provided the stations' most significant treatment of community issues during the preceding three month period must be kept." And yet, there is no mention of this list at license renewal time. Only when the FCC comes by to randomly inspect a station does it ever see the public file. The public, however, can walk in any time and ask to see it, and stations must let them by law.

FCC commissioner Adelstein says there aren't any teeth in the renewal process, and haven't been for years, even when the renewal cycle was every three years. And he wants to see that change.

"Let them prove it, and demonstrate how they're serving the public," he says. "I think we need to beef up our public interest obligation in the digital age. Should all those five new [TV] channels be commercial or should they be required to do some local content?"

"People are looking for a very public, participatory process for license renewal," says Perlstein, "They're not going to go home after this hearing and be quiet."

All radio station licenses are scheduled to expire between now and 2006, and all television station licenses are scheduled to expire between 2004 and 2007. The public could, during this window of opportunity, contest the license renewals of stations they felt were doing a bad job, though "petitions to deny," as they are called, seldom get granted by the commission.

This week's hearing on localism might be a charade--or a sign that the FCC is feeling the heat of public pressure for media reform. If regime change comes to Washington, Michael Powell may be joining his father Colin on the golf course come November, and a very different FCC could be appointed, one which protects the public from media giants, and not the other way around.

But don't expect to see Powell Jr. in Monterey. He has cancelled his visit, just as he did for the hearing in North Dakota. Commissioners Adelstein, Abernathy and Copps will be there. The hearing will take place from 6 to 10pm at the Monterey Conference Center on July 21 in the Steinbeck Forum, Third Floor, at 1 Portola Plaza. Speaking spots are by lottery. A live audiocast of the hearing will be available at the commission's website at www.fcc.gov, where people also can register their opinions online. KSCO-AM (1080), KAZU-FM (90.3) and KPFA-FM (94.7) plan to broadcast the hearings live, and KUSP-FM (88.9) will air an edited version later in the week.

Rachel Anne Goodman is a writer and radio producer living in Bonny Doon. She hosts 'Talk of the Bay' on KUSP, and is currently producing a documentary about the housing crisis in California called 'The Boomtown Chronicles.' She won a Peabody award for her work on the NPR show, 'The DNA Files.'

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From the July 21-28, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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