Thoughts on the Illinois radio license window and the future of media reform

Posted by Mitchell - November 1, 2012 (entry 694)

Today marks the day that radio broadcast licenses in the state of Illinois expires, and the last day to file informal objections with the FCC against Illinois local radio stations.

The odds are decidedly stacked against radio licenses getting rejected. According to a footnote in this article: "since 1934 [the year the FCC was founded] there have been well over 100,000 license renewals but only four times has a broadcaster had its renewal denied because it failed to meet its public interest programming obligation. The odds are less than 4/1,000 of 1 percent that a broadcaster might lose its license. In short, it is a hollow threat, and broadcasters know they can do exactly as they please to maximize returns."

There are serious institutional reasons why this is so. For one, it would certainly risk the profit flows from the network setup of broadcasters, who would lobby like mad to ensure that the profit spigot doesn't get slowed, never mind shut off. For another, any FCC commissioner who dared even try to shake the current licensing regime would have her or his career utterly ruined; after all, the vast majority of FCC commissioners and staff who leave the FCC end up working for the very media apparatus they regulated.

So, how do we change that -- so that the job of broadcasters isn't, as one executive said, "to make shit"? And how do we have it so that licenses become a valid accountability measure rather than a rubber stamp every eight years? The answer, I think, is to go deeper than reforms detached from a more substantial analysis of, and challenge to, systems of power that underlie our media (and much else besides).

An example from America's media past illustrates the point -- that of the FCC's Blue Book, a 59-page report the FCC released in 1946. The Blue Book outlined the Public Service Responsibilities of Broadcast Licensees (which was actually the formal title of the report), and went so far as to outline the kinds of programming that would suffice for meeting public service obligations, including "a balanced interpretation of public needs" (e.g., more news and local commentary and fewer soap operas), "programs inappropriate for commercial sponsorship" (e.g., electoral coverage), "significant minority tastes and interests", "service to non-profit organizations", and "experimental programs".

The broadcast industry and lobby reacted to the report like Lon Cheney to a full moon, and savagely destroyed the report and attacked the FCC as a result. Key to the attack was redbaiting, particularly during a time when the anti-left political purges in the United States labelled "McCarthyism" were at their peak. The effect was to ensure that challenges or even discussions of structural issues would not take place.

We have come a long way since then, with some encouraging developments: (1) Redbaiting has lost its efficacy since the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, (2) a generation has grown up without a Soviet threat to worry about, so new efforts at redbaiting are less likely to hold sway, (3) the taboo against discussions of markets, capitalism, and corporations, has been lifted somewhat, thanks to no small extent with the rise of Occupy Wall Street, (4) the corporate broadcast media has seen its influence wane somewhat, thanks by the ascension of the internet, social media, and a media reform movement that has grown in the past decade.

Challenges to broadcast licenses require challenges to the systems that uphold them. Therefore, any future effort for media reform not doomed to fail will also require the following:

   + Recognizing systems of class and capitalism, patriarchy, racism, and state authoritarianism and the role they play in problems in our world
   + Recognizing that those systems of repression must be abolished and replaced in order to increase humanity's chances for survival (Hurricane Sandy, anyone?)
   + Covering the uncovered and undercovered stories, both highlighting the consequences of current retentionist systems and efforts that challenge these systems
   + Recognizing that the media are not detached from these systems (internally they certainly aren't) but can be tools either for or against them

Add all of this to the mix, and suddenly having some measure of license accountability and improved radio and TV suddenly doesn't look so bad.

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