The FCC, after taking two years off, is looking to finish their field hearings on Localism by scheduling a hearing in Portland, Maine on June 29.  This hearing is not one of the six hearings to discuss possible new multiple ownership rules, but instead a continuation of the hearings started by Chairman Powell after public controversy over the 2003 multiple ownership rules.  In an ironic twist of fate, this public notice was released on the Friday before the National Association of Broadcasters Educational Foundation hosts their Service to America Awards Dinner to honor broadcasters and the public service commitment that they have to their communities.  Thus, while the FCC is looking in the hinterlands for evidence of the responsiveness of the broadcast industry to the needs of their listeners, some of the best evidence of that service was on display some 12 blocks from the FCC’s headquarters.

The Localism hearings were part of a larger proceeding begun in response to the controversy after the 2003 multiple ownership rules.  When the Democratic Commissioners, Congressional legislators from both parties, and a variety of citizen’s groups from across the political spectrum complained about how the public’s input was not sought before the rules were adopted, the FCC tried to respond to some of those complaints by putting out a Notice of Inquiry on Localism.  The proceeding was to assess how well broadcasters were serving their communities, and the Notice asked for public comment on a grab bag of issues including the following:

  • whether a broadcaster’s public interest obligations should be quantified (bringing back obligations abolished in the 1980s that required specific amounts of the programming of broadcast stations to be devoted to news and public affairs programming), 
  • should broadcasters be required to play specific amounts of local music,
  • is payola a major issue,
  • whether more programming should be devoted to political campaigns
  • whether the voices of minorities were being heard on the airwaves.
  • if the FCC should authorize more LPFM stations and take other steps to make airtime available to new entrants

Several Localism hearings were announced, and a number were held, with the last one being in Monterey, California in July 2004.  The Commission never completed the remaining announced hearings, one to be held in Portland, and the final one to be held in Washington, DC.  While the Commission has attempted to avoid the mistakes of the past by holding a half dozen public hearings on the proposed new multiple ownership rules, the fact that the Localism hearings were never completed was brought to the attention of the Chairman during some Congressional oversight hearings of the FCC earlier this year.  In response to questioning, the Chairman promised to finish those hearings, apparently leading to the scheduling of this proceeding in Portland.

The irony of scheduling the hearing just before the NAB’s gala awards banquet is striking.  At the Service to America awards banquet, the NABEF honored stations from across the country that had undertaken extraordinary efforts to serve their communities – raising funds for disaster relief, adopting community issues and working to address those issues, or simply reporting on the daily matters of importance to their communities, the dinner highlighted these efforts.  Also, the billion dollar plus yearly contribution by broadcasters in public service time and fund-raising for charity were mentioned numerous times.  In fact, three of the FCC Commissioners (Copps, Adelstein and McDowell), were all in attendance and assisted in the presentation of awards.  While critics of the broadcast industry may complain about instances where some issue or another was overlooked, is there really a better system for insuring that every issue is covered?  Perhaps we’ll find out at the Portland hearing….