FCC wants to hear from you

Published April 29, 2007

The story was harrowing, delivered by a spunky grandmother who wanted answers.

Speaking during a Federal Communications Commission hearing in Nashville last year, she recalled trying to pick up her grandchildren from school as tornados ravaged her town.

But area radio stations - owned by big corporations that had replaced local personalities with shows piped in from distant locations - were too busy playing music to report on the crisis.

Those kinds of personal stories, advocates say, are what will get the FCC commissioners' attention when they come to Tampa Monday - taking comments as they attempt to revamp sweeping rules regulating how many radio and TV stations a company can own in a single community.

"We really encourage people to come at this from a personal perspective, " said Joel Kelsey, grassroots coordinator for Consumers' Union, who led two workshops in Tampa last week coaching citizens to make the most of the 2 minutes allotted each speaker. "(The FCC) really wants to get a sense of how these policies affect individuals down the road. We want (people) to relate how they relate to media."

Of course, there's another reason why the FCC commissioners brought one of only six hearings on media ownership issues nationwide to Tampa.

Media General.

As owner of the Tampa Tribune, TBO.com, WFLA-Ch. 8 and the Sunbelt Newspapers, Media General stands as one of the few companies that owns prominent TV, newspaper and online properties in the same market. Indeed, they all share newsgathering resources within the company's $40-million News Center in downtown Tampa.

One rule the FCC may amend bars companies from "cross-ownership" of a newspaper and TV station in the same market. But Media General's ownership of the Tribune and WFLA predates that law, and the company has spent years "converging" its print, TV and online resources.

Officials from WFLA and Media General did not return calls requesting comment.

"I'd like to hear from people in Tampa on how they deal with competition and localism issues, " said Jonathan Adelstein, one of two Democratic members of the commission and a vocal critic of media consolidation. "The citizens are a great jury ... truly expert witnesses."

This will be the FCC's second attempt in recent years to revamp ownership rules. In 2003, then-chairman Michael Powell led an effort to loosen regulations that included just one official public hearing; the lack of public input drew millions of complaints, leading to rejection by both the courts and Congress.

And even though the 2003 plan was approved by three Republican commissioners over the objections of two Democrats, commissioner Michael Copps - another Democratic voice critical of consolidation - said the FCC now has a different chairman, two different Republican members and a new understanding of the public's concern.

"For years, we've been playing defense trying to keep bad new (ownership) rules from coming into effect ... and I don't think we have to play defense anymore, " said Copps, a 1959 graduate of Northeast High School in St. Petersburg. "We can actually go on the offense ... try to revisit some of the bad old rules."

There are two big issues at hand: cross-ownership and companies that own two (or more) TV stations in a single market, called a duopoly.

Copps also wants a more substantive review before broadcasters' licenses are renewed, forcing station owners to prove they serve the public interest.

Adelstein cited concerns about how increased consolidation might have insulated shock jocks like Don Imus from local protests. And he remains skeptical about any plan that would loosen ownership rules.

"Once you make a decision to allow more media consolidation, you can't unscramble the egg, " he said. "The vast bulk of the public is opposed to allowing more consolidation in any form; so the burden of proof is on those who want more consolidation."

No Republican FCC commissioners contacted by the St. Petersburg Times agreed to an interview. Although chairman Kevin Martin voted for Powell's rules revamp, few clues exist to the positions of the two new Republicans, who were not on the FCC in 2003; final action isn't expected until next year.

A fact sheet from the advocacy group Free Press argues Big Media is curtailing local control and diversity of views here: Media General and News Corp. (owners of WFLA and WTVT-Ch. 13) control half the TV revenue locally; there is just one locally owned and operated full-power TV station (WCLF-Ch. 22); three companies (Clear Channel, CBS Radio and Cox Enterprises) own 48 percent of local stations and 90 percent of radio revenue.

Citing similar facts, Rob Lorei, news and public affairs director for WMNF-88.5 FM says he wants more competition.

"Rather than having Rush Limbaugh out there opining about some national issue ... I'd like to have more competitors delivering local news, " noted Lorei, saying the big local radio chains have consolidated news operations.

But others argue the Tampa Bay area has five TV stations maintaining local newscasts owned by five different companies, and there are two strong daily newspapers in the Times and Tribune.

And where a multiplicity of media is available through satellite radio and TV systems, the Internet and cable TV, broadcasters argue they need flexibility to spread costs across multiple stations.

"We are looking for a modest relaxation of the ownership rules, just to get broadcasting on a level playing field, " said Marsha McBride, executive vice president for legal and regulatory affairs for the National Association of Broadcasters, offering no specifics. "Wall Street sees this as a business which can't move forward because of regulation."

Besides the public comments, area media figures ranging from Poynter Institute president Karen Brown Dunlap to local blogger Jim Johnson also will address the commissioners Monday, speaking for 5 minutes each.

And with moves by companies such as Clear Channel and CBS Radio to sell off some radio and TV stations, some wonder if the marketplace may limit ownership size before the FCC does.

"The trend now in the industry is going the other way, which will create greater diversity of ownership on its own, " said Art Rowbotham, president of Hall Communications in Lakeland, which owns 21 radio stations nationwide. "We're comfortable with the level of regulation we have. ... Business likes stability, and no surprises."

FCC hearing

Speak your piece

The Federal Communication Commission's Tampa hearing on media consolidation is scheduled from 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. Monday at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, 1010 North W.C. MacInnes Place, Tampa. The hearing is open for public comment. Experts say arrive at 3 p.m. to sign up.