Four Democratic leaders, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, West Virginia Sen. John D. Rockefeller, Virginia Rep. Rick Boucher, and California Rep. Henry Waxman are taking aim this month at what I like to call Public Enemy Number One: the 1996 Telecommunications Act. It took that Act of Congress to allow the right wing's lies and vitriol to dominate every radio market in this country, and it will take another Act of Congress to restore facts to our public airwaves and true debate to our kitchen tables.
True, much of the coming debate will center on new media issues of who can access high speed internet (broadband) and who can or cannot control access to content on the web (net neutrality). As digital television and the internet will merge into the same thing over the next several years, it is critical for either the FCC or Congress to build a regulatory framework now. The FCC is facing legal hurdles over its authority to regulate the internet, so it looks like Congress is stepping in.
But old media issues need to be addressed as well. At an FCC media ownership hearing in Seattle in 2007, citizens bemoaned the loss of their local radio stations. The audience jeered FCC Chairman Kevin Martin when he said the FCC had no control over radio ownership. But Martin was correct. Modern day radio ownership went through a seismic shift with the 1996 Telecommunications Act, and there is little the FCC can do about it. So any rewrite of the Act needs to correct the media ownership rules which have deeply damaged our democracy, and will otherwise haunt us for many election cycles.
When the original 1934 Communications Act was written, one person, be it individual or corporation, was allowed to own only 6 radio stations nationwide. Those ownership rules relaxed over the years, culminating with the 1996 rewrite, which allowed one person to own as many radio stations nationwide as they could buy, and as many as eight in one radio market.
In '96, a handful of radio companies were laying in wait for the bill to be signed. By the time the ink from President Clinton's pen had dried, companies like Clear Channel pounced on the radio market, buying up virtually every 50,000 watt, 25,000 watt, 15,000 watt, 10,000 watt, and 5,000 watt station in the entire nation, leaving only tiny, 1,000 watt unprofitable stations to their competitors. Those corporate persons then programmed their AM stations with a pro-corporate political agenda. In 2004, according to a study by Free Press and the Center for American Progress, 90% of talk radio was conservative, and much of the country could not get even one minute of the opposing viewpoint on their airwaves.
Plus, the corporate giants programmed their FM stations with homogenized music designed to satisfy shareholders, not artists or listeners.
Fourteen years later, the effects of the Act are clear: The 1996 Telecommunications Act is the reason why Rush Limbaugh and company dominate the public airwaves and the political discussion. It is the reason why Bill Clinton was impeached, why John Kerry was swiftboated, why George Bush was elected and why the Tea Parties have flourished. It is the reason why we as a nation are so polarized, why we shout at each other rather than debate with each other, and why we as a culture are growing accepting of hate radio which incites violence.
It is why local bands can no longer get on the air, and why midwesterners can no longer get tornado alerts. It affects the quality of our news, our information, and the health and public safety of our communities. It is why local people have no say over the content provided by the very radio stations licensed to serve their interest, the public interest.
In short, the 1996 Telecommunications Act has worn away the very fabric of America. It is time to restore discourse to the America the founding fathers envisioned.
(Note: the swiftboating of John Kerry during the 2004 election was what inspired me to make a film on these topics for Public Interest Pictures, Broadcast Blues. Perhaps not coincidentally, Sen. Kerry is one of the four senators leading the rewrite of the Act.)
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