The L A Times
Times Mirror Square
Los Angeles CA 90053Dear Calendar:
When Bob Keeshan (in a recent interview in "Calendar,") says, "We deregulated broadcasting back in the '80s..." I'm wondering if we are talking about the same broadcasting. Perhaps he is talking about radio and television in Silesia, or Ouagadougou.
In this country, under the Communications Act of 1934, the government gave out broadcasting permits for use by the public, for free. These licenses were to be temporary, and were to be renewed every three years.
However, over the years, American Broadcasters --- using Congress, the courts, and the Federal Communications Commission --- have created eternal squatting rights on these frequencies. The word is "sinecure."
Fifty years ago, with something called "The Blue Book," the FCC tried to set a policy that broadcasters who ignored their public service obligations would lose their permits. That is what we call true deregulation.
The Commission didn't get very far with "The Blue Book." Congress, along with the networks and the broadcast station owners, bludgeoned it to death, and now it's just a fond memory for those of us who had hoped that American radio and television would someday pay attention to the needs of the public, rather than the pocket-books of the owners.
Worse, what happened in the '80s was the wholesale elimination of FCC requirements that had been established to encourage dissent, to invite a variety of voices onto the airwaves, to honor the doctrine of fairness on all matters of public importance, to set aside time (not just on Sunday mornings) for healthy debate.
Now, under the rubric of "deregulation," every one of these requirements has been dumped. Single corporations can (and do) own hundreds of radio and televison stations --- sometimes several in the same city. This puts an effective end to the old and wonderful concept of diversity in communications.
In addition, all radio and television stations have be gifted with an eternal stranglehold over their frequencies. For if you or I (or your innocent writer) want to own a broadcast station in Los Angeles, we have two choices. One is to ante up $200,000,000 - $300,000,000 for a television license, or $20,000,000 - $50,000,000 for a radio license. So much for free speech.
The alternative for us is to file with the Federal Communications Commission a "strike" application --- one that would allow us to (for example) take over Channel 5 from KTLA, or 1070 kHz from KNX, or 103.5 mHz from KOST.
To do this, one must go through years and years (and years) of legal hearings at the FCC and on through the Court of Appeals. The burden would be on us: to prove that we would actually do something creative and good with that frequency.
Only a fool would attempt such a course. I know: once, long ago, some friends of mine tried to take over the license of KBAY in San Jose, to put in its place a non-commercial "community" outlet.
Application was filed, and was fought over at the FCC for ten years. And guess who won: the owners who were doing background music? Or our group --- who wanted to use the frequency for good, thoughtful community radio?
You guessed it.
Anybody who wants to change American broadcasting for the better has to remember the key fact of government policy: that the Federal Communications Commission is private property. It was sold off, fifty years ago, to American broadcasters. Lock, stock, and barrel.
For that reason, anyone who thinks "deregulation" exists should think about doing kiddie shows for a living. Which is exactly, I understand, what your correspondent has been doing for a living.