Tuesday, April 22, 2014

When Pirates Are the Best Option

Have we gotten to a point where some listeners - even government officials - think that an illegal 'pirate' radio station is the best option for local community news and information?

In Boston this week, Touch 106 was raided and shut down by the 'Feds.'

Touch 106 was a "pirate" radio station. They had no FCC license. In fact, the federal government had tried previously to shut them down but couldn't gain access to their building. Prior to the shutdown, Touch 106 had operated illegally, but not unsuccessfully, for eight years.

From time to time, illegally operated 'pirate' stations get shut down. But what makes the Touch 106 story so interesting, is the reaction from listeners and community leaders.

Even Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick told the Boston Globe he was incredibly disappointed, "Touch is a very important voice in the community."

Leading radio trade publication Radio Ink referred to Touch 106 as "The Benevolent Pirate" and quoted radio consultant Donna Halper as saying, "The Touch story speaks to a much bigger issue: the FCC's lack of interest in promoting live and local programming and it's willingness to allow a handful of giant conglomerates to simulcast and voicetrack rather than be a presence in the communities they are supposed to serve."

There's even a petition on Change.org to bring Touch 106 back to the Boston airwaves.

The FCC, as you might imagine, has a different take. The station was operating without a license, they were apparently interfering with other legally operated stations that were broadcasting on or near the same dial position.  That's why federal agents raided the studios and confiscated most of their broadcast equipment.

But what does it say when listeners and many government leaders (even the Governor!) are suggesting that the best local community service provided by broadcasters is being provided by an illegal pirate?

One Boston city council member said he was going to do everything he could to get the station back on the air, calling it, "A community institution, information resource, and vehicle for civic engagement and social change."

Those are the same words we'd use to describe KSER and KXIR. The difference is, we've been operating legally since 1991, serving the North Puget Sound as an information and cultural resource.

Of course, it might be more 'dashing' to just operate as a pirate station - and a lot cheaper. We wouldn't have to pay FCC attorney fees. We wouldn't have spent more than $350,000 to construct a tower and launch KXIR at 89.9 on Whidbey Island. And now, with that second station, and with continued support from listeners like you, we want to improve and expand our service to the communities we reach.

Perhaps if  more communities had locally-owned independent public radio stations like KSER and KXIR, some elected officials and governors wouldn't find themselves in the awkward position of defending pirate broadcasters.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Eight is Enough

For now, at least, the big commercial radio companies are stuck with ownership caps.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ruled this week there is no need to raise the number of stations a company can own in an individual market.

If you're old enough, you recall a time when a broadcast company could only own two radio stations in your town - one AM and one FM. For decades that limit served the industry well. Then deregulation occurred in the mid-90's and, suddenly, companies were allowed to own up to eight (8) stations in a major market. And in many big cities, that's exactly what happened. Not only did the biggest companies get bigger, but, in some cases, they would buy the eight stations with the strongest signals in town.

Before deregulation and consolidation, radio companies complained about competition from other media, in particular, cable television. But recently, those same radio companies have been moaning about another source of competition: the internet. That's why several years ago, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) got involved.

The NAB is a trade organization that represents the commercial radio industry. They lobbied the FCC to lift the 8-station ownership cap. The new number they wanted was twelve. It was argued that in order to be competitive, companies needed to own more and more of the radio pie.

While two used to be enough - and then eight was enough - the big companies said twelve was the new magic number. But this week, the FCC said 'no' to the NAB and ruled that the 8-station cap would remain in place.

It's way too late to save many of the great local broadcast companies that used to be part of many communities. Most are long gone, gobbled up by larger national chains with loosened ownership restrictions. That's why you might hear the same person doing traffic or weather reports on three or four (or more) stations; why the music playlist you hear in Seattle is exactly the same as what you'll hear in Portland or Miami or Denver; why in many towns that used to have robust radio news teams, there is little local news coverage at all.

Of course, radio doesn't have exclusivity when it comes to a flood of consolidation and deregulation. Many industries have been through similar upheaval. At least for now, however, the big corporate broadcast companies are on hold when it comes to growing caps.

But don’t expect the NAB or the handful of big commercial radio corporations to give up. For them, eight is not enough.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Supreme Gift to Corporate Media

If you happen to own a major broadcast network, you just had a very good week, thanks to five guys in robes.
Some are calling it "Citizens United on Steroids." This week the Supreme Court, in the case McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, struck down caps on donations that individuals can make to candidates or political parties during any two-year election cycle.

If you listened to Amy Goodman's Democracy Now on KSER and KXIR this week you heard extensive coverage and analysis of the Supreme Court decision. If you listened to or watched much of the corporate media outlets you probably heard some headlines but not much in-depth reporting.

There's a simple reason why you won't hear much on corporate media: Money.

You probably know that the 2012 Presidential election was the most expensive election in US history. One study reported that $6-Billion was spent on the 2012 election - that's $700-Million more than any prior election. And, now, 2016 will probably set another record.

So where does all that money go?  Some goes to direct mail, billboards and web advertising and viral marketing. But the lion's share of campaign advertising money goes to broadcasting...corporate owned television stations and networks in particular.

It seems, at election time, everyone complains about the flood of political commercials on TV. Everyone, that is, except the owners of the television stations and networks. That's because it's a financial jackpot for the corporate broadcast owners. These are the same owners, of course, whose news departments either downplay or completely ignore coverage of stories like the latest Supreme Court campaign finance ruling.

Even Republican Senator John McCain was dismayed by the ruling, "I am concerned that today's ruling may represent the latest step in an effort by a majority of the Court to dismantle entirely the longstanding structure of campaign finance law erected to limit the undue influence of special interests on American politics."

You can read the insightful analysis of Robert Reich on the McCutcheon ruling and what he calls the vicious cycle of wealth and political power here. Maybe "House of Cards" character Francis Underwood is not an exaggeration.

Of  course it's not just this Supreme Court ruling that gets short shrift in the corporate media; there are plenty of other stories, like the Occupy movement or global climate change that receive limited coverage.

The next time you're watching a television newscast and wondering why Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus get so much coverage while supreme court decisions are ignored, just follow the money.

Or listen to Amy Goodman.