By Al Diamon
Created Jul 5 2007 - 10:52am
On June 28, the Federal Communications Commission came to Portland to hold a public hearing on "localism." I'm not clear as to what that word means, and I suspect the commissioners and most of the 150 or so people who showed up to testify had a similar problem.
Due to my low tolerance for boredom, I didn't attend the hearing. But I read the official opening statements and listened on line to as much of the testimony as I could endure, before my beer supply ran out. From those observations, I gathered that the localism being discussed didn't fit the dictionary definition.
According to the Random House Unabridged, localism is "a manner of speaking, pronunciation, usage, or inflection that is peculiar to one locality." I can see how the FCC might have to get involved when Red Sox radio broadcaster Joe Castiglione persists in referring to relief ace Hideki Okajima as OAK-KER-GEE-MER. Who knows what that means in Japanese. It could cause an international incident.
Localism also means "a local custom" or "attachment to a particular locality" or "excessive devotion to and promotion of the interests of a particular locality; sectionalism." The feds might have an interest in preventing that last one in order to head off another Civil War. But that wouldn't explain what they were doing in Maine, which has always been loyal to the Union.
In his written statement, FCC chairman Kevin Martin offered what could be a definition of localism: "Establishing and maintaining a system of local broadcasting that is responsive to the unique interests and needs of individual communities." The other commissioners echoed that sentiment, with Michael Copps supplying some specifics.
"[D]id the station show programs on local civic affairs?" Copps asked. "What type of local political coverage did it provide leading up to Election Day? Did station owners meet with local community leaders and the public? And is the station providing children's programming that is actually educational?"
As I interpret that, what the FCC wants is for every radio and TV station in the country to fill its air time with local public-affairs shows, local candidate debates, interviews with leaders of everything from the municipal planning board to the county chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, and programs that teach kids how to speak the regional dialect ("All together, boys and girls, say OAK-KER-GEE-MER").
Those listeners who want to hear Rush Limbaugh, Garrison Keillor, the White Stripes or Black Sabbath can cough up the dough for a satellite dish. Those viewers looking for the Simpsons can move to one of the various Springfields. Those devoted to CSI had better live in New York or Miami. If you want international news, establish residence in some foreign country. Because the federal government says the local airwaves are going to be reserved for locals. Whether the locals like it or not.
Which doesn't seem to be all that consistent with the idea of localism - whatever that might mean.
On the off chance mandating local programming isn't what the FCC has in mind, let's consider other possible definitions for that word. Perhaps, it means local ownership. But if that's what the feds wanted, why did Congress change the rules in 1996, allowing big corporations to buy multiple radio and TV stations in the same market?
Then again, localism might mean local programming. Instead of some hotshot in New York or Los Angeles announcing the latest hits, we'd get somebody right down the road doing the same thing ("Here's a track from that new album by Dice-K MATT-SOO-ZAK-KER").
But what if it's not just the show that has to be local, but also the music. That could result in one radio station broadcasting nothing but the "Greetings From Area Code 207" CDs around the clock. Unfortunately, that would leave a limited repertoire for everybody else, possibly leading to an unprecedented number of airings of gospel favorites by the organist from the First Church of Federal Interference in the Airwaves.
Bureaucrats in Washington aren't the only ones with a warped view of localism. The Blethen Maine Newspapers - the Portland Press Herald, Maine Sunday Telegram, Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel - ran a bunch of ads urging the public to attend the hearing in order to "Take a good look at how the media reports local news." The ads appeared around the same time the Telegram devoted the top of its front page to a long (locally produced) story on the last episode of "The Sopranos."
The Telegram also carried an essay by Ryan Blethen, a descendent of the company founder, in which he decried the "tattered condition" of broadcasting in Maine and the "degradation of local news as a result of corporate chain ownership." In the grand tradition of localism, Blethen is the associate editorial page editor of the Seattle Times. But, he was quick to point out, he once lived in Maine. Briefly.
The Blethens' concern about local ownership (which doesn't seem to extend to newspapers) appears to be mostly for show. What the company is actually focused on is convincing the FCC to more strictly regulate broadcasters, who - coincidentally - compete with newspapers for advertising. Having the feds force the competition to deal with lots of red tape and run lots of programs the public isn't interested in wouldn't do the Blethen bottom line any harm.
I spent nearly 30 years working for Maine radio and TV stations, departing shortly before the 1996 deregulation. During that time, broadcasting was pretty "tattered" and "degradation" was a daily occurrence. Most radio stations carried little or no news and relegated public affairs programs to the dead hours of Sunday night. TV stations produced far fewer newscasts than they do today, and those newscasts consisted to a large extent of talking heads reading wire copy. If there was any hard evidence presented at the hearing that things are more tattered today than they were prior to `96, I didn't hear it. And the alleged recent degradation of which young Blethen and others spoke mostly amounted to complaints that certain special interests found it more difficult to get all the free air time they felt they were entitled to.
Advocates for the homeless wanted in-depth coverage of their issues. Likewise, health-care reformers, environmental protectors, education improvers and politicians. Lots of politicians. All of them demanding more coverage of whatever they have to say. And all of them wanting it in prime time. At no charge. If the FCC would only mandate such programming, they implied, Maine would soon be transformed into a paradise.
Except for those of us who'd rather listen to Amy Winehouse or watch "Pardon The Interruption."
There's a place for quality public-affairs programming. It's called public broadcasting. It makes no sense to force commercial radio and TV stations to duplicate what's already being done there, just to satisfy some Washington bureaucrat's idea of what people in Maine want to hear and see.
There's no question there's lots of drivel on the state's airwaves. There's also a small amount of quality stuff, even on commercial stations. That balance in favor of dreck is dictated, not by the government, but by the marketplace. Requiring classic rock stations to air programs on classical literature or replacing soap operas with Italian operas isn't going to change that. Over-regulation will just force listeners and viewers to seek other outlets that provide the programming they want. If the broadcast schedule gets clogged with self-serving pols and determined do-gooders, the public that owns the airwaves will abandon them for cable, satellite, podcasts, Web downloads or whatever other technological innovation provides popular programming, free of government mandates.
And that's the real meaning of localism.