Broadcasters didn't suffer the unrelenting bashing many had feared, but, if last week's strong citizen turnout is any indication, the FCC has touched a raw nerve by embarking on a cross-country tour to sound out average Americans on their opinions of local TV and radio stations.
"We do have community values and community norms that are very, very important to us, and we expect media companies to respond to those norms," said Charlotte, N.C., Mayor Patrick McCrory, introducing FCC Chairman Michael Powell and two other commissioners to nearly 400 citizens filling the Charlotte-Mecklenburg government meeting chamber and two overflow rooms.
As raunchy DJs and TV shows become more prevalent in markets around the country, McCrory noted that the local stations in his town couldn't find success with Infinity Radio's popular Howard Stern. "The Howard Stern show did not make it here in Charlotte, and that says something."
Charlotte is the first stop a multi-city series of field hearings on broadcast localism that Powell has created in the wake of the complaints against station operators' commitment to local programming and tastes since the 1996 Telecommunications Act ushered in a tide of broadcast consolidation.
Plenty of citizen frustration about media was kicked up this summer in the wake of the FCC's decision to relax broadcast-ownership limits.
Powell, who became a focal point for that frustration, said it is "critical" for the FCC "to get out of Washington and talk to Americans about the system of broadcasting and how it serves local communities."
Despite the removal of specific local-programming requirements in the past decade, Powell stressed that a station's duty to serve its community has never changed.
Several broadcasters from the Carolinas offered prepared statements listing their local initiatives both in programming schedules and in non-televised charity events they carry out to meet their local-service obligations.
As for citizens' comments, many echoed familiar complaints against the biggest station groups for putting profits and ratings ahead of local values and needs. Members of the North Carolina Bicycle Committee roasted local Clear Channel station WDCG-FM for two morning shows that DJs devoted to joking about running cyclists off the road.
"Promoting bodily injury to members of the public is beyond reason," said cyclist Harry Johnson. "Clear Channel appears to be promoting a pattern of community abuse for the sake of rating points. Bigger is not better. Bigger insulates management. Bigger insulates profits. Bigger insulates ownership from responsiveness to the community which it purportedly serves."
David McConnville, a media consultant to the Asheville, N.C., Chamber of Commerce, said small markets are losing jobs to consolidation because big stations prefer to automate stations as much as possible in towns with little ad revenue. "Media could be an economic driver. Instead, our graduates are leaving to larger markets."
Broadcasters' allies showed up in force, too. Shrine Bowl officials thanked WRHI(AM) Rock Hill, N.C., for building a network to carry the annual game, which raises money for burn units. The Children's Miracle Network saluted WLYT-FM for raising nearly $1 million over the past three years, and Make-a-Wish Foundation said WWMG-FM has been instrumental in underwriting its campaigns.
Marsha Cole said local "coverage is awesome" for local events of the American Red Cross.
Although Powell has staunchly defended his June 2 deregulation of broadcast-ownership limits in the face of congressional attacks and legal challenges, he insists the localism tour is more than window dressing to deflect criticism. No matter who owns a station, he promised, the FCC will no longer treat license renewals as a foregone conclusion, especially when stations are dogged by complaints about their local public service. "We want to spread the word that these renewals are not just an inside-the-Beltway phenomenon," he said.
The current round of hearings will be used as part of the record when licenses in those communities come up for review.
The next hearing is scheduled for San Antonio in December; then Santa Cruz/Salinas, Calif., in March 2004; Rapid City, S.D., in April, Portland, Maine in May; and Washington, D.C., in June.
Deadlines for filing petitions to deny license renewals in specific markets are listed by the FCC at the following Web address: www.fcc.gov/localism/renewals.html.