SUMMARY: Description of my impressions on an FCC hearing on localism held in Portland, Maine. Includes links to testimony from me and the leader of the progressive talk radio group.
Last Thursday, a group of members of the Save Boston's Progressive Talk coalition drove to Portland, Maine to testify at an FCC hearing. Little did we know that, like the desperate family in the movie Little Miss Sunshine, we'd end up having to push our car to get there. Nor did we realize the degree to which the hearing would resemble the pageant depicted in the film. But, in the best Hollywood tradition, we learned a lot from our little road trip.
First, a little background. In my diaries "Invisible Airwaves Crackle with Life", "Who (Almost) Killed Progressive Radio?", and "Grassroots Meet Rainmakers: Boston Progressive Talk Radio", I've told the tale of the demise of progressive talk radio in Boston and our group's struggle to bring it back. Clear Channel began broadcasting progressive talk in the Boston area in 2004, but tried to run it as cheaply as possible: weak signal, virtually no local staff or promotion. Sometimes the computer-in-a-closet that was running the station would simultaneously broadcast two different shows. Clearly, no one was home. Although progressive talk attracted a loyal following among those who managed to discover it, Clear Channel switched it off abruptly in 2006, replacing it with a Latino music format ("Rumba"). Despite the fact that Clear Channel suddenly managed to find local staff for Rumba, Rumba has done worse in the ratings than progressive talk. This pattern that has been repeated across the country. As an added insult, in Columbus and elsewhere, the "placeholder" format now broadcast on the former progressive talk station is conservative talk. Even though ratings have been abysmal, management has openly admitted that at least it serves the purpose of keeping competitors from broadcasting the same hosts. Meanwhile, on those stations that give progressive talk a decent signal, such as KPOJ in Portland, Oregon and WHLD in Buffalo, New York, it does remarkably well.
By law, broadcast radio and television are regulated under the "scarcity rationale". The number of stations who can broadcast within the available bandwidth is limited in order to prevent interference between signals, so the government issues licenses to broadcasters, who must demonstrate that they are serving the public interest, which includes diversity. To protect the public's access to information, there are restrictions on a company's ownership of multiple stations, or cross-ownership of print, radio, and television outlets. Finally, until fairly recently, the Fairness Doctrine limited the ability of broadcasters to attack persons or to editorialize on the air without offering the opportunity for rebuttal.
However, over the past few decades, all of these types of regulation have eroded. The Fairness Doctrine has been effectively dead since 1987, though some argue it was never taken off the books. (Its removal was certainly a boon to conservative talk, but many -- perhaps most -- fans of progressive talk actually don't want it back. What about you?) Media companies have consolidated to an astonishing degree, leading to a situation in which only a handful of companies control most of the country's airwaves.
Although the FCC, under its Republican chairman, has stalled as long as possible in terms of holding public hearings, it has been forced to hold a few in the recent past. Members of our group assumed that the liberal Northeast would never get a hearing, but in fact, pressure from Maine's moderate Republican Senators as well as its Democratic Congressmen apparently did the job. So when we heard from Common Cause and Free Press that there'd be a hearing, we made plans to attend.
Although our love of progressive talk radio was what compelled us to make the trip to Portland, it almost did us in. I had argued that we should take my car, but our leader Robin ("rougegorge" on Daily Kos) wanted to listen on the way to Air America on XM Radio, and her connector required a tape deck, which my car doesn't have. We were doing fine on the road until Robin noticed that the car was having trouble accelerating. (Later, we discovered that there had probably been water in the tank.) As long as we kept up our speed, we were okay. But five miles from our destination, we ran into a traffic jam. This is where "Speed" meets "Little Miss Sunshine". We didn't explode, but we did stall. Repeatedly. Only by traveling in the breakdown lane were we able to keep on moving. We stalled three times on the hill leading off the ramp. Then, when we were about half a block away from our destination, the car stalled again. George and I jumped out of the car and pushed it the last few feet into a parking place, and then I ran inside to sign us up, fearing that we were already too late.
I burst into a room full of people to ask whether we were too late to sign up. "Oh, no," a woman reassured me. "Just go over to that table in the hall." I did. The woman at the table warned me that we'd have to offer my testimony in the second batch rather than the first, but I was just relieved that we'd be able to testify at all.
However, I didn't realize just how long it would be until we got a chance to do that. The hearing began twenty minutes late, the commissioners spoke, politicians had their turn (via either aides or videos) and then twelve panelists spoke for five minutes apiece. Some were impressive (most notably Chellie Pingree, former president of Common Cause and now candidate for Congress -- I know I'd vote for her!), but some were not. And it would be about an hour and a half before any private citizens could offer their opinions. Poor Bill in Portland Maine, who also attended the hearing, had to leave before then, so all he heard were the men and women in suits. And I'd been looking forward to meeting him. Oh well, another time...
In fact, "private citizens" was a bit of a stretch. Many of those who took their turn at the microphone were broadcasters, executives, or representatives of charities who happened to get donations from the big media companies. They put the pageant in the movie "Little Miss Sunshine" to shame. As Dan Kennedy writes in a Media Nation post that vividly describes the atmosphere:
The industry folks who took part in the hearing addressed this in several ways — by stressing the amount of local coverage their TV and radio stations offer; by soliciting testimonials about how cooperative they are in covering such local stories as severe storms, disasters and health risks; and by gushing, endlessly, about their devotion to charity.
Let me deal with the last point first, because, after a while, it started to give me a queasy feeling. Surely the next-to-last refuge of a scoundrel, after patriotism, is to boast about your charitable endeavors. Think of how loudly Don Imus beat the charity drum when he was trying to salvage his career.
Well, there was plenty of that last night. One industry executive waxed enthusiastically that broadcasters have "a public-service gene." Cary Pahigian, president and general manager of Saga Communications' Portland Radio Group, whose past includes running a hate radio station on Cape Cod for the late car dealer extraordinaire Ernie Boch, added, "We're here to contribute to the community at all times."
The bottom was reached when a woman from the Barbara Bush Children's Hospital, speaking from the floor, told the commissioners about 9-year-old Joshua, described as a cancer patient, who supposedly said the local broadcasters' charitable efforts were invaluable "because there are kids here and they want to go home."
Thus was a seriously ill young boy drafted into the cause of preserving Big Media. A later speaker got it exactly right when he called the constant references to charity "distasteful" — a demonstration of "a complete lack of humility ... not in touch with the humble folks of this state."
The only thing missing from Kennedy's description was the feeling of being bored to death by a gang of broadcasters armed with cheery smiles rather than billy clubs. Due to the order in which they signed up, one came right after the other, and they had absolutely no problem with essentially repeating each others' testimony. It was almost like, well, scanning the radio and hearing the same thing no matter where you turned.
The private citizens who made the most impression on me came from an organization of homeless people. They testified about what it was like to know that some national syndicated morons were actively inciting their listeners to attack the homeless. The idea that this hatred was being piped in from out-of-state to dissociate Mainers from their own neighbors encapsulated everything I thought was deadly about national conservative talk radio.
I had written up testimony that was going to focus heavily on the case in Minot, North Dakota, where the operator of a derailed train carrying anhydrous ammonia was desperately trying to warn the community to stay indoors and close the windows. The problem was that all six radio stations belonged to Clear Channel, which was running them all remotely -- and no one could be reached. But after hearing so many broadcasters pat themselves on the back for the way they responded to the 1998 ice storm in Portland, I thought that might not go over as well. I also felt bad for the commissioners, whom no one had explicitly addressed as individuals. So when the time came (probably somewhere around 9:30 p.m., after most of the suits had gone home) to deliver my testimony, I put my notes aside and winged it. I began as follows:
... I came from... Massachusetts today to testify about why localism and diversity are life-or-death matters.
But before I begin, I want to thank the commissioners for offering the public a chance to provide their input. I especially thank Commissioners Copps and Adelstein, not just for being here, but for doing their best to prevent the disaster that almost ensued in 2003, when a majority of the FCC under then-chairman Powell voted to further roll back the media ownership rules that have been undergoing erosion for decades. Fortunately, the public and Congress were so irate that a bipartisan group of legislators passed a law undoing the damage. I want the commissioners to know that their efforts were noticed.
I did see Copps and Adelstein sit up. In fact, an aide had chosen that moment to walk up behind Copps and start whispering to him. I can't read lips, but if I understand facial expressions (and if I remember The Pink Panther correctly), Copps' response to the aide was along the lines of "Not now, Kato, not now!"
One consequence of winging the testimony was that I didn't manage to get in everything I wanted to before my time was up (and two minutes is a really short time). In fact, I said I was going to talk about two train wrecks, but only mentioned the first. Still, I think Copps and Adelstein appreciated the fact that I spoke to them directly.
You can find a synthesis of my planned and actual testimony here.
As I stepped away from the microphone, still awash in adrenalin, I heard Robin and George, my fellow travelers (and I use the term literally since we all made the nerve-wracking trek together) deliver Robin's testimony (which they split between them). I was proud of them both.
Outside the hearing, we talked to a local guy who listened to progressive talk in Portland before it was canned. Then we headed home. Thankfully, Robin had had some dry gas added to the tank and the car worked fine. So our apprehension about whether we would get home at all began to subside, and we began to analyze the heavy brew of emotions that were left: disillusionment in the way our political process can be gamed, pride in the efforts of those who are trying to save it. At 2 a.m., I crawled into bed.
To learn more about what you can do to promote progressive and independent media and halt media consolidation, see these resources:
If you live in the Boston area, please check out Save Boston's Progressive Talk, where we're organizing to buy a station of our own. If you live elsewhere, please see:
Progressive radio stations
and while you're at it, take a look at:
Progressive radio timeline
and if you're interested in organizing nationally to promote independent and progressive media, please let me know!