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The Public Is Interested

Deep in the heart of Clear Channel country, a rowdy Texas crowd told Michael Powell and his FCC colleagues that the debate over localism in broadcasting is serious business. During the second of six field hearings the commission is holding, more than 500 San Antonians last week crammed into City Council chambers, many to vent frustration at hometown-based radio giant Clear Channel. But another large contingent decried what they see as an unacceptable proliferation of raunch on the airwaves across the country and a decline in the programming that communities need. The crowd also included a smattering of supporters.

The commissioners extended the Jan. 28 hearing an extra 90 minutes to accommodate nearly all of the 100-plus members of the crowd who wanted to speak. "We commend them for sitting through 51/2 hours to hear people's concerns," said Tim Winter, executive director of the Parent's Television Council.

Winter described emotional outbursts from onlookers during testimony and open-mike presentations that forced FCC Chairman Powell to bang his gavel several times to restore order.

Unlike a similarly crowded but decidedly more genteel group that showed up for the FCC's first field hearing in Charlotte, N.C., last October, San Antonio's installment had the feel of a protest march.

Waiting since 4 a.m.

In fact, dozens had been preparing for the event since December, thanks in part to teach-ins sponsored by activist group Esperanza Peace & Justice Center. By 4 a.m. last Wednesday, more than 12 hours before the hearing started, nearly 25 people from the center and other activists had lined up to ensure they would get seats. The early risers were fueled not only by enthusiasm but by coffee and, for reasons that didn't seem to be symbolic, a giant, communal bowl of rice pudding.

Determined to have their voices heard this time, a cacophony of activists who feel the media ignore their messages showed up to speak out: anti-war group Code Pink, liberal get-out-the-vote organizers, even animal-rights protester People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. "We're just people who love democracy," said Esperanza's Barbara Renaud Gonzalez.

The purpose of the FCC road show—the next stop is in Santa Cruz, Calif. in March—is to generate input for an agency inquiry that will study the need for new local-programming requirements for broadcasters.

"It is one thing for us as a commission to sit at out desks in Washington and read dry rules applications but another to talk directly to the public who listens to these stations everyday," Powell told the crowd.

The review is timed to coincide with the FCC's ongoing review of broadcast-license renewals, which lasts through 2007. Powell concedes that the localism review was prompted by complaints generated during last year's deregulation of ownership limits but insists that the current project won't lead the FCC to retrench on those restrictions.

His critics said localism and increased concentration can't be separated. "The loosening of media-ownership rules and diminished competition are the source of the problem," said Russ Newmann, research coordinator for Free Press, a national media-reform group.

When it comes to new rules, the industry and the activists couldn't be further apart. "We do not need any additional incentives to continue to serve localism," said Robert McGann, general manager at Belo's KENS-TV San Antonio. The FCC's license-renewal process and local advertisers' demands for top-rated news are incentive enough, he said.

"I don't see how the commission can come to any conclusion other than there should more specifics in what it means to serve the local community," Common Cause Director of Field Operations Lauren Coletta told BROADCASTING & CABLE the next day.

Media critics envision new obligations that will encourage debate on public issues, such as quotas for news and local programming or maybe resurrection of rules that once required broadcasters to meet with community groups to "ascertain" local needs. They reject the contention of many broadcasters that sponsoring non-broadcast events like walkathons helps fulfill broadcasters' obligation to serve local communities. "Cigarette companies can do that, too," Newmann said, "but that doesn't make smoking any better for you."

Clear channel clubbed

While broadcasters as a whole took heat from activists, an abundance of placards denouncing the country's largest radio and billboard company created an overtly anti-Clear Channel atmosphere. "Clear Channel Blur$ the Truth," read one sign. "We're not one country under Clear Channel," declared another.

Clear Channel Market Manager Tom Glade had a chance to speak for his company, which, because of its top spot in both the radio and concert-promotion businesses, has been labeled by critics as the monopolizing Goliath of the music business.

No local flavor

It's that kind of cross-promotion that led Asleep at the Wheel bandleader Ray Benson to label the company's market share and heavy reliance on market research as the scourge of regional musicians. "Just as strip malls with national brand-name retailers have homogenized the look and regional flavors of large and small towns, so has radio done much the same thing to music." If he plays a venue that competes with one operated by Clear Channel or some other radio conglomerate, "chances are I won't be invited" to promote his music at the conglomerate's station, Benson said.

But Glade insisted that Clear Channel's ability to dictate which musicians succeed in pop music is more myth than reality. He noted that only six of San Antonio's 55 stations are owned by his company. "The radio scan button," he told the commission, "has more power than most people know." If the company's stations fail to meet local listeners' needs, they'll "simply turn us off."

Clear Channel has not helped itself deflect criticism, however. On the day of the San Antonio hearing, the Chicago Sun-Times
reported that Clear Channel stations in the Windy City were under new orders to tell listeners using the Kennedy Expressway the travel time to Allstate Arena, a venue Clear Channel books for concerts, not to O'Hare Airport, the traditional landmark used for decades by traffic spotters.