REMARKS OF COMMISSIONER MICHAEL J. COPPS, FCC HEARING ON LOCALISM AND LICENSE RENEWAL, SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS
REMARKS OF COMMISSIONER MICHAEL J. COPPS
FCC HEARING ON LOCALISM AND LICENSE RENEWAL
SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS
JANUARY 28, 2004
Tonight we continue a truly remarkable grassroots dialogue about the future of the
media. Over the past year we have seen cascading national concern over what many
Americans, myself included, see as disturbing trends in the media. We have seen citizens
from all over the country -- conservative and liberal, Republican and Democrat, young
and old, rural and urban, north and south -- come together to express their concern, even
their alarm. For many months, the discussion focused on new and looser ownership rules
implemented by the Federal Communications Commission, with people asking how
many -- or, perhaps more accurately, how few? -- broadcast stations media conglomerates
should be allowed to own. For what purposes are stations granted licenses? And how
does the public interest fare in a more heavily consolidated environment? This
ownership dialogue continues, in Congress, in the courts, around the nation. Tonight we
address core media values, particularly localism, from a little different perspective, but
we should realize that this is part of a larger discussion about protecting the people’s
interest in the people’s airwaves. No one part of this grassroots dialogue can be divorced
from any other part. Media ownership is totally germane to any discussion of localism.
Let’s begin at the beginning tonight, reminding ourselves that all of us do indeed
own the airwaves and that corporations are given the privilege of using this public asset –
and to profit from that use – in exchange for their commitment to serve the public
interest. Broadcasters have been given very special privileges and they have very special
responsibilities to serve their local communities. Serving the public interest is supposed
to be their lodestar.
Now broadcasting is not an easy business. Many broadcasters still want to serve
the public interest, but these days station owners are less and less captains of their own
fate and more and more captives of unforgiving Wall Street and Madison Avenue
financial expectations. Some tell us the answer is to rely more and more on marketplace
forces as a guarantor of the public interest. These people trust that the public interest will
somehow magically trump the urge to build power and profit and that localism will
somehow survive and thrive. I don’t think we can afford to rely on magic here.
Since the 1980s, fundamental protections of the public interest have weakened
and withered – requirements like meeting with members of the community to determine
the needs of the local audience, teeing up controversial issues for listeners and viewers,
encouraging antagonistic points of view and providing viewpoint and program diversity,
to name just a few of the obligations that we once had.
In addition, the Commission pared back its license renewal process from one
wherein we looked closely, every three years, at how stations were serving the public to
one wherein companies now need only send us a short form every eight years and their
renewal wishes are granted. License renewal has become a slam-dunk. It’s not called
“post card renewal” for nothing.
This erosion of public interest protections comes at high and dangerous cost to the
American people. Some call my concern excessive, but I feel in my bones that few
priorities our country confronts have such long-term importance to our democracy as how
America communicates and converses with itself and how this process has deteriorated
We come to San Antonio to talk directly with members of this community and
this state and to tap local expertise that can give us a look both broad and deep at what is
happening here. How can we possibly know if licensees are serving their communities
without hearing from the community? Are stations adding to the civic dialogue? Are
they encouraging local talent? Are they reaching out to minority groups within the
And -- an issue on which I have focused attention since I came to the Commission
-- are they adhering to community standards or are they airing excessive amounts of
indecent and violent programming? Few can deny that we are seeing a race to the bottom
on our airwaves. Sometimes, I wonder if there even is a bottom. Just this week, we cited
Clear Channel for apparent violations of the indecency statute on twenty-six different
occasions, but the proposed fine doesn’t rise above a cost of doing business for such a
large conglomerate. We should have long since been fining violators for each utterance
on a program, rather than treating the whole program as just one instance of indecency.
That could represent a credible fine. But we haven’t been able to get ourselves there yet.
I mention Clear Channel because Clear Channel’s headquarters are here, but I don’t want
to cite only Clear Channel. It is a pervasive problem -- and it is getting worse.
Industry, collectively, is doing next to nothing to clean up its act. But if we at the
Commission could just bring ourselves to send one of these more outrageous cases to a
hearing for license revocation, Big Media would get the message real quick and they
would begin to take us seriously, which they don’t right now.
There is something you can do to start taking back your airwaves. The
Commission began this past fall the process for all stations across this country to renew
their licenses. We need your help with this. Stations are required to keep a public
inspection file, but the Commission does not generally look at that file nor examine how
a station has served its local community unless we hear from members of the community.
We rely on you to tell us if there is a problem in your community. There are various ways
to tell us what you think, from filing a formal petition -- which is not the easy or user-
friendly process it should be and one which I recommend only to the stout-of-heart -- to
filing an informal objection to sharing with us your even more informal comments, letters
or e-mails. Anyone of our FCC folks here can give you more information on the license
renewal process; you can call us at 1-888-CALL-FCC; or you can find us at
www.fcc.gov. I am told a hand-out explaining all this is available tonight.
We began these localism hearings in Charlotte, North Carolina in October. We
heard from the good people of North and South Carolina about the importance they attach
to their local media. We did get a little side-tracked on one score, however. Some of our
panelists and commenters seemed to confuse such things as conducting blood drives and
fundraising for charities with the sum total of their public interest responsibilities. Now
these fundraising activities are commendable activities, to be sure. But they are only a
part of a broadcaster’s responsibilities to the community. It’s as American as apple pie
for corporations in every line of business to participate in that kind of community self-
help and we all applaud them. But the question on the plate tonight goes to how well this
very different and very special industry is serving its very special obligations to use the
airwaves for the larger benefit of us all. So I hope our panelists and commenters tonight
will resist the temptation to catalogue all of their non-broadcast efforts and will focus
instead on the greater picture of what they are doing as trustees of the public’s airwaves.
I would like to thank all of you in this audience who have given up your evening
to be here to discuss the importance of local broadcasting to your communities. It shows
how important this issue is when so many of you have come out, some from the far
corners of this great state. Texas is making its voice heard, and I am enormously pleased
to be here to listen and to learn.
Thanks to each of you, and thank you, Mr. Chairman, for bringing us together
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