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FCC's sound choice

At first glance, Peter Doyle's new job appears far removed from his days as a lobbyist for troubled Rust Belt cities. But there are common threads between his current post as chief of the FCC's audio services division and the job he held while earning a law degree from Georgetown University in the 1980s.

After all, radio stations only a few years ago were considered the Rust Belt of broadcasting. Before the 1996 Telecommunications Act ushered a wave of consolidation and profitability, radio was on the wane and capital flowed out of the business faster than a smokestack industry to cheap overseas labor.

Today, like the Eastern and Midwestern cities rebuilt by financial services and technology businesses, radio has come back strong.

The duties of the Audio Services Bureau gained a higher profile as the industry's fortunes improved. Although the bureau is considered by many in the industry as no more than the place that processes the hundreds of radio sales and new-station applications filed each year, consolidation has put the office into the middle of a high-profile public-policy debate over placing the airwaves into a few powerful hands.

The higher profile is fine with the new chief. "I've always enjoyed issues that involved public policy," says Doyle, who assumed his post in May.

Doyle joined the FCC in 1995 as an Audio Services Division staff attorney after 10 years handling merger applications and other transactions for a couple of Washington law firms. "Looking for a change," he answered a help-wanted posting in an FCC hallway.

Most fulfilling, he says, has been helping to streamline procedures that "drove me crazy" as a private attorney.

Doyle, who served as a congressional aide and a lobbyist for the Northeast-Midwest Institute, wins praise from former private-sector colleagues.

"Under Peter's watch, the division will be both efficient and effective," says Alan Campbell, a partner of Irwin, Campbell, Tannenwald broadcasting law firm.

Topping Doyle's agenda in the coming months will be the creation of more than 1,000 new full-power stations. The new stations, the largest influx since the controversial "80-90 docket " in the early 1980s, represent some important firsts for the FCC. A new point system for issuing educational and other noncommercial licenses gets its inaugural run. Also, the FCC will conduct its first open auction of broadcast licenses by putting 350 FM allotments on the block in September. As many as 250 AM stations could go up for bidding sometime in 2002.

Those two auctions were thrown into uncertainty in June, however, when a court ruled that noncommercial stations can't be forced to bid to receive allotments on the commercial portion of the spectrum band.

"It's not yet clear how we're going to proceed," Doyle says.

The office also is gearing up for the authorization of the first noncommercial low-power FM radio stations, which he calls "one of the most significant accomplishments of the FCC's Mass Media Bureau."

Construction permits for 100 low-power outlets have already been issued in a dozen states. When applications from the rest of the country are settled, as many as 600 of the stations could go on the air.

Next up will be tests to determine if low-power interference restrictions can be dropped to accommodate more LPFM outlets.

Doyle's agenda also includes settling disputes over the added scrutiny the FCC gives to radio mergers that place the majority of a local market's advertising into one or two companies, and setting rules for digital radio service.

Doyle says he hopes to have the digital rules finished in 2002.

He also intends to improve on efficiency gains "the excellent team" he inherited made in recent years processing licensing applications.