The massive wave of radio consolidation in the past seven years is troubling,
Federal Communications Commission chairman Michael Powell told senators Tuesday
in defense of criticism from opponents of industry concentration.
Regarding the FCC's sweeping review of all media-ownership restrictions, "I
am skeptical that some of the more melodramatic versions of what's coming out of
the commission are accurate," he said during a Senate Commerce Committee
Rather than eviscerating ownership limits, Powell said the FCC simply needs
new types of restrictions.
For instance, because the 35 percent cap on one company's TV-household reach
is often upheld as a way to preserve localism, he suggested that a simpler approach
might be to limit properties that can be owned locally.
After several lawmakers criticized the FCC's media-ownership review, a
frustrated Powell noted that the radio-consolidation wave was launched not by
the commission but by Congress when it lifted the cap on national radio
ownership as part of the 1996 Telecommunications Act.
Since that time, the country's largest group, Clear Channel Communications Inc., has
grown from roughly 40 stations to more than 1,200 and many radio markets are
dominated by one or two owners.
Powell also pointed out that broad review of nearly all media-ownership
limits was ordered when judges found that the FCC hadn't fulfilled its obligation to
justify its media-ownership restrictions every two years.
"If I didn't care about media ownership, I'd do nothing, because the court will
vacate everything" the FCC doesn't justify, Powell said.
He also pledged to tighten loopholes in radio-market measurement that allow
companies to own more stations than normally would be permitted.
Despite his assurances, several lawmakers said they feared that the FCC would go
"We're headed in exactly the wrong direction," said Sen. Byron Dorgan
(D-N.D.), adding that the increase in media outlets is meaningless if one company
owns most voices in a market.
"When you're talking about more voices, are you talking about more voices from
one ventriloquist?" Dorgan mused.
Similar sentiments were expressed by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Kay Bailey
Hutchison (R-Texas) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine).
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who will be the committee's chairman when the Senate
formally organizes for the current session, did not indicate whether he is
retracting his longstanding preference for ownership deregulation.
Consolidation foes are hoping to sway McCain, who
reiterated his frustration with rising cable rates.