I’m writing this entry as I return from the annual convention of the Iowa Broadcasters Association, held this year in Des Moines, Iowa. Anyone who has read, watched or listened to the national news this week knows of the terrible tornadoes that devastated a Boy Scout camp in that state, and the floods ravaging many of its cities and threatening others. I arrived in Iowa on Wednesday having just completed the filing of reply comments in the FCC’s localism proceeding, and after reviewing the many comments filed in that proceeding. After talking with, watching and listening to the Iowa Broadcasters, I was struck by the contrast between the picture of the broadcast industry contained in the Commission’s notice of proposed rulemaking and that which I saw and heard reflected in the words and actions of the broadcasters. I could only think of how the broadcasters of Iowa and the remainder of the country have dealt admirably in their programming with the disasters that nature has sent their way, and with the other issues facing this country every day, and have been able to do this all without any compulsion by the government. Why, when we have probably the most responsive broadcast system on earth, do we need the government to step in and tell broadcasters how to serve their communities?
At dinner on Wednesday, I watched one station general manager repeatedly getting up from his meal to take calls from his station about their coverage of a tornado that had come within a quarter mile of his studio, and how he had to insist that his employees take shelter from the storm rather than continuing to broadcast news reports from their exposed location as the tornado bore down on them. Another told me of how he and another employee had spent the previous day piling sandbags around the station to keep the water from flooding the studio, all the time reporting between every song the station played updates on the weather and travel conditions in their community. Other stations had continued to operate after their tower sites flooded by gerry-rigging antennas on dry land to permit their continued operation. In one of the more minor inconveniences, one station talked about operating for a few days after their city’s waterworks had been inundated by floods , meaning that their studio (and the rest of town) had no running water for drinking or even for flushing the toilets. Yet, between these inconveniences, large and small, the broadcasters continued their service, without being told how by the government.
No doubt some will say that the new rules are necessary not to regulate those broadcasters that responded in the ways that I set forth above, but for those who do not. But that, to me, seems to beg the question of how you make rules about what is important to listeners. While the national TV news reports may have made it seem like all of Iowa was underwater, in fact life went on as normal in many parts of the state, including the portions of Des Moines where I was. People in those areas, while inconvenienced by road closures and while concerned about the plight of others in their community and their state, went about their lives. And many stations continued with their normal programming, interrupting only as necessary with news and alerts – including EAS alerts about severe weather. It seems to me that this was entirely appropriate – you don’t want or need every station to be going wall-to-wall flood coverage when the majority of the people were not affected, when information about weather issues was available on many media outlets, and when emergency updates were given on virtually all outlets through EAS activations when National Weather Service or other sources indicated that severe weather threatened a particular community. But for the vast majority of people, there was nothing wrong with providing them entertainment, sports, national news or spiritual programming serving their non-weather related needs. In fact, I’m sure that some of the normal programming gave residents the ability to preserve somewhat of a normal life, without making the existing severe problems seem so all-encompassing that normal life would cease entirely. All of these stations are serving their audiences.
Broadcasters know their service areas, and they know their audiences. They know what their audience wants to hear, and their stations are programmed to meet the needs of that audience. People in larger cities know where to get wall-to-wall news, and they know where to get entertainment or other programming. They don’t go to the rock radio station to get full information about the governor’s press conference any more than they go to the news-talk station to get information about concerts at the local civic center or music club. In smaller towns, they know which station will have the information about their communities. All broadcast stations are not, and cannot be, all things to all people. But that is the beauty of the American system of broadcasting – station owners can choose how to serve their audiences, and by allowing that choice, audiences of virtually all interests can be served in the ways most relevant to them. And broadcasters can freely adapt to changes in their audiences or changes in their markets, without needing government approval.
Broadcasters serve these communities, even if their main studio is two miles outside the city limits. And they don’t need to have some minimum wage employee babysitting the transmitter in the middle of the night. As more than one Iowa Broadcaster told me, if there was a real emergency, their regular employees will cover it, even if it is in the middle of the night, as so many of the broadcasters in the hardest hit communities have been doing this last week. They are not going to trust some low-wage overnight board operator with gathering and distributing important information. In fact, many of the rural stations said that, if a rule was adopted requiring that they be manned during every hour of operation, their stations would probably be silent during overnight hours, eliminating EAS sources that run regardless of whether or not the station is manned, and abandoning the audience that now knows that they can rely on 24 hour service from virtually all broadcast stations.
At Monday’s 10th Annual Service to America Awards – an award ceremony held in Washington DC each year to honor achievements in community service by broadcast stations – Commissioner Robert McDowell was presenting an award to a station that had performed a litany of public service programs for its community. He marveled, in a way that was clearly a message to fellow Commissioners in the audience, how this kind of public service was all done without government mandate or intervention. Broadcasters are serving their communities every day, as I witnessed in Iowa, and they don’t need to have the FCC regulations telling them how.