WHAT'S AT STAKE WHEN THE F.C.C. ENABLES BIG BROTHER?
by Marybeth Brennan
American Reporter Correspondent
Lake Worth, Fla.
LAKE WORTH, Fla., June 2, 2003 -- If you want the "Big Brother" of George Orwell's "1984" to become a reality, just support the Federal Communications Commission's actions to increase media monopolies.
Further consolidating the ownership of our public airwaves, broadcast and cable television, radio, and newspapers, will speed us in that direction.
In addition to the control of the thought process, the expanded monopoly has already put local communities in jeopardy. Recently, public safety officials in Minot, N.D., could not find a single local radio or tv newsroom staffed late on a Sunday night, to alert citizens of a potential dangerous gas leak from a ruptured tanker. One of those "clusters" of radio management hundreds of miles away, actually program these "local" stations.
In cases of hurricanes, tornados, or other natural disasters; terrorist attacks, or massive traffic or transport accidents, there are now few, or no, newsmen, assignment editors, reporters, and photographers covering the local scene. The few local television stations that allegedly cover local news often have "consolidated" news operations with competing stations. Most "morning drive" radio news, is nothing more than reading the first two paragraphs of local newspaper stories. These newspaper stories are too often sloppily assembled from cut-rate staffs, or simply cut and paste versions of the Associated Press, which since the virtual demise of UPI, has no countervailing reason to be particularly accurate.
Until the consolidation of profitable FM stations by gigantic Clear Channel Communications and a few others-often throwing away AM programming for "bartered" or "infomercials" shows, at least talk radio was able to act as the local cracker barrel or hot stove league. The community could mix it up verbally, have fun, be entertained, and lo and behold, sometimes even learn something new. Issues impacting local schools, government, and neighborhoods would get an airing.
Those days are over.
In 1994 when home shopping giant Bud Paxson started buying UFH tv stations and local radio stations, he purchased tiny, but influential, WFTL radio in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. For portions of the then 13th largest market (Miami-Ft. Lauderdale), and the 45th largest market (West Palm Beach), WFTL provided the last locally produced, 24-hour, seven day, talk format in the Southeastern United States.
Nothing was taped. There were no network reruns. No Rush, no Howard, no Dr. Laura, no syndicated doctors, lawyers, computer geeks, or chiropractors. Some of the programming was great, and WFTL hosts went on to larger stations or sometimes syndication. But it was always original, always local, and always live and ready to report a power failure, hurricane warning, or big crash on the Florida Turnpike. In two years Paxson sold to Clear Channel, and two years later, Clear Channel basically consolidated three news, talk, sports, or "full service legacy" stations into one lame "news-talk" station.
"Local" newscasts are often "anchored" by newsreaders-sometimes on tape-located 75 miles away from the city you are listening to. Quite an endorsement for more consolidation, right?
Two years ago, driving from Shreveport, La., through Tyler, Tex., and on to Dallas and Amarillo, I was able to scan the AM dial and listen to several stations running re-runs of tape-delayed, previous re-runs of Rush Limbaugh for six hours on weekdays and nine to 12 hours on weekends.
The local politicians have few opportunities even to pay for airtime for political commercials and long-form discussions. There is no equal time or community service provision requiring a newsman or woman to interview them. Except for a rare statewide election, there is hardly any public forum for communities to host political discussions or debates, or "town hall" meetings. In the "old days" which some broadcasters seem to hate, remote broadcasts not only spurred public interest but also attracted prestigious advertising.
Even music has come to mean some canned concoction of cookie-cutter cacophony by some elite "programmer" in San Antonio, Atlanta, or L.A. New artists have few outlets for their work, and few D.J.'s who have the freedom of creating innovative local "sounds: in Greensboro, S.C., or Jacksonville, Fla., or Memphis, Tenn., or Boise, Ida. As recently as 15 years ago then locally-owned WJNO-AM in West Palm Beach, (and other stations around the country), would invite new groups or singers in studio on weekends, or late at night, to schmooze with a host, play a live set, and take calls from new-found fans. They would plug some local club or event where they would be appearing, and a new grassroots following was born.
Today, a new performer had best hope for a finalist slot on Born to Diva, American Idol, or Fame, and get a roomful of consultants, and (as one Idol semifinalist did) go out and take the money you don't really have to buy a $1,200 leather sports jacket for your tv shot.
Young talent gets a chance at success, if the media moguls and their "judges" think you fit the demographic profile of their audience.
Small businesses cannot compete with the Wal-Mart and Circuit City in advertising dollars, and are forced to pay megabucks for advertising time, often beyond their immediate shopping area.
The FCC has bowed down to big business and has severely endangered America's freedom of expression and information.
If NBC (General Electric), ABC (Disney), CBS (Viacom this week), CNN (Time-Warner/AOL), Fox (Murdoch's Newscorp), and their various subsidiary networks are hurting financially, let them fine tune their efforts to compete in the world of cable, broadband, and direct satellite tv.
Let them use they same free market they claim they need tilted even more in their favor, to expand legally, but don't grease the wheels for them to crush diverse voices and local media ownership, and close out any semblance of local markets.
Note: When Mark Scheinbaum's wife asked him to send her OpEd piece to Members of Congress and the FCC, he decided it would be better as a column. We agreed.
Marybeth Brennan, a former reporter for the The (N.J.) Record, is a consultant to magazines, Websites, and newspapers. She asks that you contact the FCC and your Federal elected officials yourself.