Bob Edwards Urges ‘Public Interest, not Corporate Profitability’
as FCC Considers Media Ownership Rules
Popular Radio Host Testifies on Behalf of AFTRA Members at FCC Hearing
WASHINGTON (October 31, 2007)—Citing examples of how the 1996 deregulation of radio ownership harmed local interests, radio host Bob Edwards told the Federal Communications Commission that if they “further deregulate media in this country, networks, broadcast stations, and newspapers will continue to consolidate, resulting in fewer voices heard by citizens.”
Speaking on behalf of members of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, Edwards, who serves as AFTRA National First Vice President, urged the FCC in considering media ownership regulations to “proceed in a deliberative fashion, keeping in mind the public interest, not corporate profitability.”
The host of “The Bob Edwards Show,” on XM Satellite Radio and “Bob Edwards Weekend,” distributed by Public Radio International called on the FCC “to not ‘fast track’ its consideration of the real and lasting impact that further consolidation would have on localism in broadcasting.”
Edwards testified as an invited witness at the sixth and final public hearing on localism conducted by the FCC.
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Testimony of Bob Edwards
Before the Federal Communications Commission
Public Hearing on Localism
October 31, 2007
Hello my name is Bob Edwards. Thank you for the opportunity to testify before the Commission on the issue of localism and media. I am testifying on behalf of AFTRA, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, which represents more broadcasters than any other union. I am a proud member of AFTRA and serve as its National First Vice President. I am currently the host of “The Bob Edwards Show,” on XM Satellite Radio and “Bob Edwards Weekend,” distributed by Public Radio International to 92 public radio stations. Previously, I hosted daily magazine programs on NPR for 30 years.
While my programs are national in scope, my 40 years in broadcasting have provided me with significant insight and perspective on the importance of localism in broadcasting to serve our country's local communities.
The major radio conglomerates argue that the broadcast ownership caps should be lifted to enable them to respond to increased competition from satellite radio and the Internet. But this ignores the local aspect of terrestrial radio broadcasting. Satellite radio is, by definition, a national platform. The strength of terrestrial radio and its major appeal is that it is local.
When it comes to conveying local information, news, weather, and community events, there is no real competition between these platforms. A national satellite broadcaster isn't going to give local communities information about, for example, their local school board election—and if terrestrial broadcasters continue to consolidate, local communities won't get that information from local radio stations, either.
Localism is inextricably linked with the rest of the Commission’s regulations governing media ownership, which are also currently under review. The drive to consolidate ownership of media seems to ignore the disaster that consolidation has brought to local news and public affairs on radio in this country. The Commission should not intensify the continuing evisceration of broadcast localism as a result of consolidation by adopting rules enabling even more consolidation.
Although I’ve spent most of my career working in public radio, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that commercial radio and television dominate the airwaves in this country. It should not be a luxury for journalists to practice their profession in an environment that is free from commercial constraints. I’m well aware that my colleagues who work at commercial stations take their responsibilities to their local communities very seriously. Unfortunately, their employers—increasingly focused on the corporate bottom line—don’t seem to share that priority.
If the Commission is going to give large, multi-national companies the right to exploit the publicly-owned airwaves for profit, it should consider how those companies have historically behaved when they are deregulated. Radio ownership was largely deregulated in 1996 to the detriment of localism in broadcasting. Consider the following examples:
• In Chicago, Westinghouse-owned WMAQ-AM had been an all-news station since 1989. Westinghouse bought CBS and later merged with Viacom in the '90s. The merged company's radio division, CBS Radio (then called Infinity), owned Chicago’s only other all-news format station WBBM-AM. In 2000, Viacom/CBS/Infinity determined that it was no longer profitable for it to compete against itself, so it shut down WMAQ-AM. Because WMAQ-AM and WBBM-AM were the only two all-news format radio stations in Chicago, when Viacom killed WMAQ-AM, it was killing WBBM-AM's only competition, leaving the third largest radio market in the United States with only one all-news radio station. Although these moves may have been highly profitable for Viacom, they were hardly in the public interest.
• Viacom’s radio division—CBS Radio—also owns both of the only all-news format radio stations in the New York City market. Although CBS Radio continues to compete against itself in New York City by maintaining separate newsrooms, the fact remains that the same multinational media conglomerate programs both of the only all-news radio stations in New York; there is not a separate independent all-news format radio station in the largest radio market in the United States.
• On music format stations, consolidation has led to practices like “voice-tracking” in radio, or “jockless” formats. Veteran radio broadcasters find themselves out of work while their former employers air canned programming, produced in a distant market, and without regard for the input and tastes of the local community.
• And, as you know well, at 2 AM on January 18, 2002, there was a train derailment in Minot, North Dakota, the fourth largest city in the state. One company, Clear Channel, owned all six commercial radio stations in Minot, yet when emergency responders tried to reach somebody at the stations to air emergency warnings and instructions, nobody responded. Clear Channel was piping in music from other states. Over 240,000 gallons of a hazardous material—anhydrous ammonia—were leaked. One person was killed, 330 were immediately treated, and more than 1,000 people needed medical care in the months that followed.
These examples and countless more illustrate that media consolidation has been the enemy of localism in broadcasting. If the Commission truly seeks to enhance localism, it should tighten, not loosen, ownership restrictions. This much is certain—there exists no compelling public interest justification at this time for the Commission to relax its ownership caps and thereby repeat the mistakes of post-1996 consolidation.
The same thing is already starting to happen in print and television. You have heard AFTRA members testify at other public hearings across the country about how media companies that own newspapers and television stations in the same market routinely repurpose and recycle content. You’ve heard about how broadcast conglomerates that operate two stations in a market consolidate newsrooms, fire journalists and homogenize programming. My colleagues around the country have been very clear about what these proceedings mean to us; I certainly hope that you are listening.
Mark my words. If you further deregulate media in this country, networks, broadcast stations, and newspapers will continue to consolidate, resulting in fewer voices heard by citizens. If you permit this consolidation, television stations and newspapers will behave as commercial radio owners behaved when they were largely deregulated—they will adopt a business model that shuts out local news and entertainment in favor of national homogenized programming. If commercial media are given the unfettered right to abandon their obligation to serve the public interest, they will do just that. Please do not let this happen.
Instead, please proceed in a deliberative fashion, keeping in mind the public interest, not corporate profitability. Accordingly, I would urge the Commission to not "fast track" its consideration of the real and lasting impact that further consolidation would have on localism in broadcasting. The health and robustness of American media is riding on your decision.
Thank you for the opportunity to speak before you today on this extraordinarily important issue.
The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, AFL-CIO, are the people who entertain and inform America. More than 70,000 professional performers, broadcasters, and recording artists are moving forward together through AFTRA to protect and improve our jobs, lives, and communities. AFTRA members embrace change in society—from new culture to new technology—and incorporate change in our work and craft. AFTRA celebrates and thrives on the diversity of our members and the work we do. AFTRA opens a whole new world of opportunities for success for professional performers, broadcasters, and recording artists. In 32 Locals across the country, AFTRA members work as actors, journalists, dancers, singers, announcers, hosts, comedians, disc jockeys, and other performers across the media industries including television, radio, cable, sound recordings, music videos, commercials, audio books, non-broadcast industrials, interactive games, the Internet, and other digital media. Visit AFTRA at www.aftra.com.