It starts with the understanding that We the People legally own the frequencies over which TV and Radio stations broadcast. There are only a few such frequencies in any given community, and it is their scarcity which makes broadcasting unique and subject to government oversight. As stated last month in a Third Circuit Court of Appeals decision,
We agree with the FCC that the rules do not violate the First Amendment because they are rationally related to substantial government interests in promoting competition and protecting viewpoint diversity.
People need to understand that broadcasters only receive licenses to broadcast IF they “serve the public interest.” Those licenses only come up for renewal once every eight years. It happens that those licenses are coming up on the radio side on a rotating basis across the country starting now through July 2014; on the TV side, they come up for renewal starting September 2012 through July 2015.
If stations clearly are not serving the public interest, those licenses can be legally challenged within that time frame and should be rescinded, giving new broadcasters opportunities to both make the big bucks broadcasters do (TV stations are making as much as 46.8 percent profit, according to the most recent report issued by the FCC) and serve the public interest at the same time.
But the public needs different things in different communities. For example, are radio stations in tornado country airing tornado warnings? They should; such announcements are absolutely neccesary to public safety, but not all stations do so.
During elections, should every talk radio station in one community provide opportunities for citizens to evaluate various political agendas? That would serve the public interest far better than the one-sided “conservative” political agenda that, according to a Free Press/Center for American Progress study, is promoted in 90 percent of radio stations throughout the country today.
And what about two TV stations in the same town sharing just one newsroom, firing all the reporters at the other? Such arrangements may benefit shareholders, but does it serve communities’ needs for more and better local journalism?
This is not to say the only way to get broadcasters to serve the public interest is by filing legal challenges to their licenses. The Sacramento Media Group, affiliated with Common Cause, has successfully employed a model of knocking on TV stations’ doors, asking for five minutes of daily political coverage on TV during election season. It took meetings with station management making that request, monitoring stations’ coverage for three election cycles, writing several reports and releasing them to local newspapers (which caused the stations considerable embarrassment.) But today, SMG has found success. Their next goal is to ask local Talk radio stations for balanced political coverage, again during election seasons.
At the end of the day, the publicly owned airwaves are about public safety, about community and about ensuring First Amendment rights for everyone in the public square of broadcasting. Luckily, the Supreme Court is on our side.
In Red Lion Broadcasting v FCC, the Supreme Court held that
the First Amendment is relevant to broadcasting, but it is the right of the viewer and listener, not the broadcaster, which is paramount.
That’s the First Amendment Right of allthe viewers and listeners, not the just ones who listen to the most profitable formats for corporations.
There is much energy around restoring the Public into the Public Interest. A grassroots movement started earlier this year in Florida, when the UU Legislative Ministry supported an 11 city media reform tour featuring Broadcast Blues.
But it is really finding its legs next month with the 2011 Wisconsin Media Reform Tour featuring Broadcast Blues. (Broadcast Blues is the 2009 documentary film I made which delves into issues of public interest obligations of broadcasters.) Thanks to the organizing efforts of local folks, I’ll be traveling to eight cities in Wisconsin, showing the film, then surveying citizens as to their specific public interest needs. Next, we’ll work on how to approach their local broadcasters, not just by email, but with personal visits, and convey to the broadcasters what they need. In some cases, friendly visits will get great results: heck, the manager of the station could be somebody you went to high school with. But other times, protests, boycotts, maybe even legal petitions to deny the stations’ licenses may need to be filed.
But unlike the Fairness Doctrine, this is a bottom up approach. This is “We the People” holding both broadcasters — and the FCC accountable to us. We are taking back that which we already own: our public airwaves.
Sue Wilson Reports