The Price of Free Airwaves

[SOURCE: New York Times 6/2, AUTHOR: FCC Commissioner Michael Copps]
[Commentary] Using the public airwaves is a privilege -- a lucrative one -- not a right, and I fear the Federal Communications Commission has not done enough to stand up for the public interest. Our policies should reward broadcasters that honor their pledge to serve that interest and penalize those that don't. The FCC already has powerful leverage to hold broadcasters to their end of the bargain. Every eight years, broadcasters must prove that they have served the public interest in order to get license renewal. If they can't, the license goes to someone else who will. It’s a tough but fair system -- if the commission does its job. The problem is that, under pressure from media conglomerates, previous commissions have eviscerated the renewal process. Now we have what big broadcasters lovingly call “postcard renewal” -- the agency typically rubber-stamps an application without any substantive review. Denials on public interest grounds are extraordinarily rare. Let’s also actually review a station’s record before renewing its license. Here are just some of the criteria for renewal the FCC considered in the 1990s but never put into place: Did the station show programs on local civic affairs (apart from the nightly news), or set aside airtime for local community groups? Did it broadcast political conventions, and local as well as national candidate debates? Did it devote at least five minutes each night to covering politics in the month before an election? In an era when owners may live thousands of miles from their stations, have they met with local community leaders and the public to receive feedback? Is the station’s so-called children’s programming actually, in the view of experts, educational? All of this information ought to be available on the Web so people can see how their airwaves are being used.
(requires registration)

* For more on broadcasters' public interest obligations see



Login to rate this headline.