New FCC proposals want to take us back to the 1970s and '80s for their core requirements and then add some burdensome twists on top.
First, the FCC wants to require all stations to return to the days of doing community ascertainments, even though back in the 1980s the FCC finally recognized that formal ascertainments were a “regulatory straight-jacket” that forced every station into the same mold. Today, every station receives hundreds of e-mails every week from viewers and listeners, none too shy to tell us exactly to what we ought to be paying attention in our local communities.
A second proposal would force every station to create a community advisory board made up of civic leaders to advise us on what news to cover, what issues to push and how to program our stations. Given that the FCC's own notice acknowledges that many other approaches—such as “town hall” meetings, managers' service on community boards and dedicated telephone numbers—have been successful in licensee efforts to determine community needs, this seems like a superficial solution looking for a problem.
The third element is a requirement that broadcasters maintain a physical presence at each facility during all hours of operation. Most television stations already do that. But the unintended consequence for small-market radio operators is that many would simply sign off the air overnight rather than pay someone to be there when the rest of the community is asleep. How does that serve the public?
The most crippling idea in the FCC plan is to require every station to return its main studio to its city of license. Imagine a television duopoly whereby a bigger station acquired a struggling station licensed to a city 10 miles away. The smaller station is saved because it can benefit from economies of scale and a single management team. The FCC idea would unwrap all the efficiencies that could make the combination of stations profitable.
Broadcasters are the most highly incentivized group of people on the planet to serve our local communities, to be in touch with their needs, and to reflect and shape their values. Our future is inextricably intertwined with our local communities. It has never been more important for us to be local. Our strength is in our news products, our coverage of high school basketball and our commitment to our local charities. It's a little insulting that after all we do, the FCC would even think of requiring us to do more.
The day we start losing touch with the people who watch us and listen to us is the day we start going out of business. What more incentive could we possibly need? We don't need FCC requirements to force us to be good community citizens. We already are.