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Sue Wilson Outlines Citizen Action to Take Back Our Public Airwaves

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My guest today is Media Action Center's Sue Wilson. Welcome back to OpEdNews, Sue. I see that you've been quite busy lately. You have a three part series up at OpEdNews right now.  Please tell us what's got you so hot and bothered.

Sue: It is such an interesting time at the Federal Communications Commission, Joan.  For the first time in years, the FCC is actually standing up for the public interest it is sworn to protect.  

Just today (March 31,) under the leadership of Chair Tom Wheeler, the FCC voted to disallow TV station Joint Service Agreements. That is a scheme broadcasters have been using for years to skirt TV ownership rules by owning one station in a town, but managing another.  What it means to the average viewer is that news shows are replicated on both stations, which results in less independent reporting. What it means to the broadcasters is increased profits.  But today, the Democrats at the FCC said no more. And, as expected, the Republicans are howling.

I expect the howling to be amplified on Talk Radio and Fox News.  That's something else new: Republican FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai is very willing to use the power of "Conservative" talk to influence FCC decisions.

JB: If Talk Radio and Fox News are howling, that's generally good for the Good Guys. Was this decision surprising, Sue?  I know that opponents of regulation or even a mandated audit or evaluation were preemptively active which could have cowed Wheeler and his colleagues.  Give us some more background so we can get a clear picture of what happened within a larger context, please.

Sue: Let's go back briefly to President Obama's promise to clarify the public interest with regard to the publicly owned airwaves. He first appointed Julius Genachowski as his FCC Chair, but Genachowski was little more than an industry hack.  All hope for real reform was lost. Luckily, Genachowski left his post, and the President appointed Tom Wheeler as Chair.  People were reticent about Wheeler, as he had been an industry lobbyist. But we saw hope when he made Gigi Sohn, a renowned public interest advocate, a member of his staff.

What happened March 31st was, when Tom Wheeler turned back Joint Service Agreements, he earned his stripes as a public interest advocate. The National Association of Broadcasters has threatened to sue the FCC over the decision, which I am sure Wheeler saw coming.  He appears to be using his broadcast industry knowledge to stand up to industry.  It is a good turn of events for real media reform.

JB: Can you sketch for us how we got in this big mess in the first place? I don't think the public airwaves were originally intended to be used the way they are now. What went wrong, at least as far as We the Public are concerned?

Sue: This is a huge question, one I took up in my media reform documentary, Broadcast Blues . In short, there are frequencies in the air over which broadcast signals travel.  We the people own that air, and also the frequencies, of which there are very few.  Companies are licensed to broadcast on OUR airwaves if - and only if - they "serve the public interest." If they do not serve the public interest, they should lose their licenses.

In the early days of broadcasting, Congress passed the rule of 3's, that one radio owner could have just 3 AM, 3 FM, and 3 TV stations - nationwide!  Over time, that rule was relaxed to 7 AM, 7 FM, and 7 TV stations, and then by the Reagan era, 20,20,and 20.

Then in 1996, Congress decided that one company could own as many radio stations nationwide as it could buy.  And the companies who knew what was in the law stood by with contracts ready. We saw Clear Channel go from owning 40 radio stations to 1200 - virtually overnight.

We have seen the results by the huge disparity in conservative vs. progressive voices on the air.  Today, better than 90% of talk radio is squarely conservative; less than 10% is progressive or liberal.

The FCC, the agency tasked with enforcing the law, has also been tasked with doing a review of media ownership rules once every four years to ensure fairness for everybody.  One was supposed to have been started in 2010, and completed by now, but Chair Genachowski just blew it off entirely.  Chairman Wheeler is not only taking the quadrennial report seriously, but also taking the public interest seriously.  

The rules on TV license ownership weren't changed greatly in 1996. But station owners found a way to get around them by getting special waivers from the FCC for these Joint Service Agreements which would allow them to own one station in a town, and manage another at the same time.

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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