For over a year the FCC has been quietly going through its internal steps of a rulemaking proceeding to change broadcast rules, under the title of “Report on Broadcast Localism and Notice of Proposed Rulemaking” (Localism). Euphemisms like “localism” and “choice” denote something good. Who could be against choice? Who could be against local broadcasting? Wouldn’t a diverse availability of programming be good for the consumer? The reality of the effect of the rules will be quite different.
Ironically, the Localism rule changes would impose onerous new regulations that would result in less local and less diverse programming on both secular and religious stations. Such rules would amount to a restriction, not only of free speech rights, but of religious liberty enshrined in the First Amendment and destroy Catholic radio!
Among the requirements advocated by the Localism proceeding are:
Ø 24/7 staffing of stations (Localism, 29)
Ø A required minimum time of locally produced programming and of programming dedicated to addressing local issues.
(Localism, 40,41, 69)
Ø Permanent Advisory Boards composed of “officials and other leaders from the service area” of the station who would determine whether the station was meeting local programming needs.
(Localism, 26, 43, 44)
While the intent of such rules may be to increase programming that meets the needs of local residents. It falls short on many fronts. For example:
Ø 24/7 staffing of stations simply drains limited resources. Will a minimum wage employee babysitting the station to meet a rule really result in local programming?
Ø For religiously programmed stations, will programming produced locally on the issue of abortion be any more informative than that produced at a central point and disseminated through a network? Are the local pastor’s comments on the necessity to love thy neighbor more erudite, more compelling, more authoritative than that of his bishop 100 miles away, or of the Holy Father 5,000 miles away?
Ø Will an Advisory Board of “local officials and other leaders” be more responsive to the needs of underserved communities than the members of those communities who actually own a station? Consider the case of a medium sized media market like Charleston, SC. There are 38+ AM/FM stations. There are also populations of Koreans, and Phillippinos, along with Catholics; all minorities in the community. Are we to believe that a board of “local officials and leaders,” none of whom may be Korean, Phillippino or Catholic, would ensure the needs of these underserved communities are met, more than the station owners?
Consider the following passage from the Localism Rulemaking:
“The principle of localism requires broadcasters to take into account all significant groups within their communities when developing balanced, community-responsive programming, including those groups with specialized needs and interests (Localism, 69).