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"The night after I was sworn in, I waited for a visit from the angel of public interest. I waited all night, but she did not come."--Michael K. Powell, Chairman Federal Communications Commission
by John Tarleton
WASHINGTON, D.C.--Nikki Larson helped start an eclectic 60-watt pirate radio station last fall in Knoxville, Tennessee after her campus station switched to an automated playlist and eliminated local news coverage. Two weeks ago, an FCC marshal and the local sheriff ordered First Amendment Radio to cease programming from a 250-foot-high ridge overlooking Knoxville. On March 22, Larson, 20, joined a small but plucky band of public interest "angels" who descended on FCC headquarters.
Singing anti-corporate hymns and wearing white sheets, tinsel halos and wings made of cardboard, Larson and a dozen other angels were among an ad-hoc group of 60 media activists who gathered on a bitterly cold day to call for a reversal of government policies that have left the U.S. media system in the hands of a small group of global conglomerates. When the angels tried to deliver a public interest crystal ball to FCC Chairman Michael Powell, they were rebuffed at the building entrance by a phalanx of security guards.
"I didn't expect them to come out and say anything," Larson said. "But, I don't know how long they can ignore us. Speech is meant to be free. That's what the First Amendment is all about."
Democracy at Risk
Speakers included Inja Coates of Media Tank, Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy, Dee Dee Halleck of Deep Dish TV, Richard Turner of the Alliance for Community Media, Warcry of the Information Liberation Front, Peter Hart of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), Reverend Billy of New York City's Church of Stop Shopping and Terry O'Neill of the National Organization for Women. They warned that democracy was being eroded by media concentration.
"Without a broad array of voices we cannot have the kind of public discussion of public issues that we need to have in order to maintain our democracy," O'Neill said.
Dawn Zupelli, 32, a sign language interpreter from Rochester, New York echoed the speakers' sentiments. "I fear if we don't speak up now, we'll never be heard. We're already being pushed further and further to the margins."
Jim Land, a 27-year FCC employee, came down from his office to watch the protest. Wearing baggy pants and a purple tye-dyed t-shirt, he reminisced about being tear-gassed during Vietnam-era protests at the University of Maryland. He said the biggest impact of pending media mergers would be an increase in advertising rates. He was confident that the public interest would still be served.
"In the future people are going to find their information on the Internet," Land said.
The Evolution of the FCC
The FCC was established in 1934 to ensure that broadcasters would serve the "public interest, convenience or necessity." As media ownership restrictions and public service obligations have been erased in recent years, critics have accused the FCC of abandoning its mission.
The Commission is currently moving to end cross-ownership rules that keep newspapers from being absorbed by the broadcast industry. On February 19, a federal appeals court nullified a pair of long-standing government regulations that limited the size of media giants like AOL Time Warner, Viacom, News Corp. and General Electric/NBC. One rule prevented the same company from owning TV stations and cable franchises in the same market. The other rule limited the number of TV stations a single company could own.
Chester warns that the Internet is the next target as cable providers look to monopolize high-speed broadband services.
"The Internet is being hijacked by old media companies in order to integrate it into their existing production and distribution apparatuses," Chester said.
Stephanie Finneran, 17, of Asheville, North Carolina believes FCC policies represent an attack on the public good. "It seems like another case where the community and the people don't really matter and that profit wins out over what society really needs," she said.
Organizers envision Friday's event as the kick-off of a multi-pronged campaign for media democracy in the United States.
"This event put the FCC on notice that they are being watched, that people are doing things, that they are willing to take to the street," said Pete Tridish of Philadelphia-based Prometheus Radio Project.
"My Religion Is the Market"
Powell (son of Secretary of State Colin Powell) has become a lightning rod for media activists since he was appointed to the FCC in 1997 by Bill Clinton. The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) has hailed him as an "outstanding choice" while Powell in turn has referred to broadcast corporations as "our clients," denounced regulation as "the oppressor" and stated that "my religion is the market."
"If Michael Powell was a city planner and he was planning New York City, he would probably pave over Central Park and put in another Times Square, or he would take all the neighborhood bodegas and sell'em all and turn them into Burger Kings," Tridish says. "There is no room in Michael Powell's future for either public spaces or small businesses because it's just the law of the big fish in the sea as far as he is concerned."
Powell's office was unavailable for comment.
The angels who turned out on Friday are looking to produce downloadable teaching materials for activists around the country. Plans are also underway for protests at NAB's September 12-14 annual meeting in Seattle and for Media Democracy Day on October 18. Tridish hopes media activists will want to launch a campaign against Clear Channel, the radio conglomerate that has purchased over 1,200 radio stations since the Telecommunications Reform Act of 1996 was signed into law. "They make a great target because they are everywhere," he says. "And, they deserve it."
As for Larson, she and her friends have no plans to take their tiny station off the air. "We're going to keep broadcasting," she says, "because everybody has a right to good radio."