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FCC to Scrutinize License Renewals

September 30, 2003|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Emboldened by their success in stalling relaxed media-ownership rules, opponents of consolidation are gearing up a campaign to block some television and radio stations from renewing their licenses by arguing that the broadcasters aren't serving their local communities.

Similar efforts have largely failed over the last 20 years as the Federal Communications Commission simplified its license renewal process and lifted public interest requirements that once set aside airtime for educational or public affairs programming.

But the controversy over the FCC's vote on June 2 to ease long-standing limits on media consolidation has energized a coalition of government officials and media watchdog groups.

FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps, a Democrat who has led the charge against media consolidation, as early as this week will announce the first of what he hopes will be a series of hearings nationwide to collect data and opinions about specific broadcasters. The resulting record would be used as evidence to challenge licenses when they come before the FCC for renewal.

"We've strayed too far away from the rigorous licensing process that we used to have," Copps said. "Now, unless you're a wife beater or a child molester or something like that, you can pretty much count on getting your license by just filing some papers."

Last week, a Ralph Nader-backed group petitioned the FCC to block renewal of 63 radio stations owned by Clear Channel Communications Inc., accusing the radio chain of running deceptive contests and airing indecent material.

Other media watchdog groups are preparing similar challenges against stations in North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida, where a next wave of FCC licenses come up for renewal in December. Copps said he would hold his first hearing in late October in North Carolina.

Industry lobbyists dismissed the campaign as grandstanding and media bashing.

"We believe they are specious claims and an abuse of the regulatory process," Clear Channel lobbyist Andrew Levin said of the petition by Nader's group, Essential Information. "You have to question Ralph Nader's motives: Is he really concerned about our local radio stations or about his own national political aspirations?"

Broadcasters are nervous about Copps' plan to hit the road again with more hearings. During the media ownership debate, Copps organized more than a dozen public forums nationwide that helped galvanize a grass-roots campaign to oppose relaxation of media ownership rules. As a result, Congress and the courts are reviewing whether to roll back some of those changes.

The new hearings also set down a political challenge for FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell, who recently announced plans to launch his own initiative and hearings to study whether broadcasters were serving local markets. Powell, a Republican, was roundly criticized for ridiculing Copps' first round of hearings and refusing to participate in most.

Copps and Powell have been discussing whether they can combine their efforts and avoid the prospect of dueling campaigns, but no agreement has been reached.

Powell's office declined to comment.

"We all need to work together on these issues," said FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, a Democrat. "The more we do it together, the more we send a message to the public and broadcasters that we're serious."

Copps said he wanted to return to the days when the FCC had more stringent criteria for reviewing broadcast licenses. Renewals were previously heard every three years. Local leaders were asked to grade a station's performance. And broadcasters were required to set aside 5% of programming for local shows and another 5% for news and public affairs.

In the 1970s and 1980s, many of those rules faded away as the FCC relied more on structural rules to prevent consolidation, such as a ban against the same company owning a TV station and newspaper in the same market.

Today, license renewals occur every eight years and were considered so automatic they've been dubbed "postcard renewals."

"Currently, the standard is totally self-defined by the stations themselves,'' said Meredith McGehee, director of Alliance for Better Campaigns, which advocates requiring that broadcasters give free airtime to political candidates. "And they usually define that standard in whatever way makes them the most money."

On June 2, Powell led the Republican majority to relax many of the remaining structural rules to prevent media consolidation, including lifting the ban on TV-newspaper mergers. The rules have been temporarily blocked by a federal court pending legal challenges.

The new hearings would be an attempt to gather public input about the performance of specific broadcasters. Copps eventually plans to host sessions nationwide, following the FCC timeline for license renewal. California licenses begin expiring in 2005.

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