Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Clear Channel's Minot Story Just Won't Die

This post by esteemed media critic Dan Kennedy references the infamous poison gas event in Minot, N.D. in 2002. I like Dan's blog a lot, so I was glad to see that at least he was thorough enough to link to a site that explains why Minot was the result of a poorly-implemented and -executed state/local emergency plan moreso than because Clear Channel owned all the commercial stations in Minot.

But good God, man...will this story ever DIE?? It's been five years and we're still beating this dead horse; and I for one find it interesting that nobody attacks Prairie Public Radio, the local NPR outlet, for not providing any real-time information about the event. But I digress...

My point here is that Dan was lamenting FCC Dark Lord Chairman Kevin Martin rammed through deregulation of newspaper and TV/radio station ownership, and that supposedly Minot was an example of the bad things that happen with deregulation. Frankly, Minot is a poor example to cite here. Clear Channel's cost savings from consolidation is probably what let them afford to have at least one token air staff person in the studio that fateful night. The rest were unattended not because of consolidation, but because of computer technology doing the same job for a lot less money. Even independent/local-owned stations make extensive use of computers to replace DJ's...look at uber-local WJIB 740AM, which is often cited as a "good example" of a local station. WJIB has no DJ's at all...it's all just computer automation set up by the owner, Bob Bittner. Before computers, it was Bob's "famous" VCR tapes and cart machines. I don't begrudge Bob that at all, mind you. I'm just pointing out the facts.

Frankly, a better example about how consolidation has hurt localism is the $10,000 fines that WCHC (College of the Holy Cross) and WERS (Emerson College) received from the FCC for public file violations during the most recent round of FCC license renewal.

Sound odd? I'll explain:

The FCC requires all radio stations to file for renewal of their licenses from the FCC every seven or eight years (it keeps changing). As part of that renewal, you must certify that your station has followed all FCC rules during the previous license period. You're supposed to tell the truth, because if you lie on a federal form, it's a felony...something your license holder (the parent college) does not like being put at risk of. But many, MANY college radio stations...even those with their act together like WERS...often have screwed up something in their public file at some point over a seven year period. It's pretty easy to do - the public file rules are rather arcane.

So many stations did tell the truth and admitted some violation of the public file rules. Many then explained what they'd done to correct the problem (sometimes years ago). And the FCC went ahead and fined them $10,000 for their honesty. Mind you, the context here is that the FCC never went after the dozens of stations (some were commercial conglomerates, some commercial independents, some non-commercial...it wasn't just Clear Channel) that lied on their forms and got away with it and never got any fine at all. Great example to set there, Mr. FCC.

Here's where this gets interesting: the renewals are staggered over five years, with stations in different clusters of States, so as not to overwhelm the system. During the first round, the public uproar over deregulation had not taken hold as much as it did by the later rounds...so the FCC kept upping the ante with these public file violation fines. In the first round, stations that admitted to violations got a $4000 fine. Later rounds got a $5000 or $7000 fine. By the time we got to stations in Massachusetts (the fourth round) it was $10,000. It's not like the stations in later rounds could do anything to "fix" the problem in the face of higher fines; the problems all occurred years before the renewals started.

No, the fines just kept getting higher because the FCC was facing more and more criticism about media deregulation...and this was their "solution" for it, since the FCC feels the public file is how they judge stations on localism.

Ergo, thanks to the sins of deregulation, two good college radio stations got shafted for being honest whereas some big commercial conglomerates got away with lying through their teeth. Taken more broadly, because deregulation has led to such huge corporate entities, the FCC has been forced to up the ante on its penalties for them to have any teeth with these billion-dollar companies. Unfortunately it means that a slap on the wrist to Clear Channel could be a death knell to a small college or public radio station...and these stations are self-censoring themselves heavily as a result.

That's the real problem with deregulation - the greater regulation of ideas.

1 comment:

Kirk said...

Aaron:

While your points about the FCC's enforcement track record are prescient, and the ridiculous fining of any station, but particularly college stations, over the Public File rules just makes you shake you want to shake your head.

But the reason the whole Clear Channel in Minot saga keeps getting cited by people like Dan Kennedy as an example of media ownership gone wrong, is because one of the original arguments for allowing massive radio station ownership consolidation--was that it was supposed to assure that there would be bodies in a local radio station cluster when there were six of them in the same building, instead of just automation computers controlled by people hundreds of miles away.

It's one thing if one station (yes even the NPR one) misses the opportunity to warn the public in an emergency situation--but it is quite another if a half-dozen stations that make up 50% (or more) of that town's available outlets fail to do so.