Slate – Jan. 17, 2007:

Suppose Congress had established in the early 19th century a Federal Publications Commission to regulate the newspaper, magazine, and newsletter businesses. The supporters of the FPC would have argued that such regulation was necessary because paper-pulp-grade timber is a scarce resource, and this scarcity made it incumbent upon the government to determine not only who could enter the publications business but where. Hence, the FPC would issue publication licenses to the “best” applicants and deny the rest.

Whenever an aspiring publisher pointed out that timber wasn’t scarce, that huge groves of trees in Canada and the western territories made it plentiful, and that he wanted to start a new publication based on this abundance, an FPC commissioner would talk him down. He’d explain that just because somebody had discovered additional timber didn’t mean that the scarcity problem was over, it only meant that timber was relatively less scarce than before. He’d go on to say that the FPC needed to study how best to exploit this new timber before issuing new licenses.

Based on the notion of scarcity, the FPC would have evolved a power to prohibit licensees from using their paper for anything but publishing the kind of print product the FPC had authorized—no using that licensed paper to print party invitations or menus or handbills or facial tissue, the FPC would mandate.

And so on.

The absurd regulatory agency that I imagine here is only slightly more absurd than the Federal Communications Commission, which has exercised even greater control over the radio spectrum.



  1. Mr. Fusion says:

    Regulation in itself is not a bad thing. The issue only becomes a problem when the regulation interfere with ME.

    Is the FCC regulating our airwaves in the best interest of the public? I guess that depends on how many shares of Clear Channel you own.

    Has the FCC allowed local ownership to deteriorate to the detriment of the music and radio industries? Yes.

    Did Congress give the FCC permission to do this? Yes, and we got exactly what the neo-con monopolists wanted.

  2. Greg Allen says:

    Without an FCC, wouldn’t every band become like CB radio — total chaos?

  3. Janky says:

    The analogy is flawed. Newspaper 1 can’t interfere with newspaper 2, making it impossible to read either.

    Imagine if congress deregulated the airwaves. Great! Competition comes in! But Clear Channel has deeper pockets, so it buys bigger transmitters than the new competition and drowns the new competition out, sending the new guy into bankruptcy. Or else in the interest of efficiency, it buys REALLY BIG transmitters that can cover half the country (hey, they care about the rural people too). Pretty soon our houses would be heated by the strength of the transmitters. And imagine the emergency services, remembering the whining that went on after the WTC attacks. Do you really want “Joe’s house-o-trance” drowning out the firemen?

  4. OhForTheLoveOf says:

    #2 – You say that like its a bad thing…

  5. TJGeezer says:

    When I lived north of San Francisco, I had a favorite music program broadcast weekly on KPFA, a Berkeley FM station known for its leftist political views, live shows and unconventional music. Then a Pat Robertson-like “Christian” station came in and drowned out KPFA. People would complain, the so-called “Christians” would wait as long as possible, and then crank back their power, or spectrum spread, or however they did it, until the problem went away. Then they’d interfere again. I’d be looking for an hour of weird world music and instead get their never-ending “Christian” appeals for MORE MONEY!!! from anyone who didn’t want to go to hell. Until somebody told them to crank it back for awhile until the natives settled down.

    Without any FCC at all, we’d have money-grubbing “Christians” and right-wing political propagandists and other constitutionally intolerant bullies all over the dial.

    Wat – that’s what we have now. Never mind.

  6. SN says:

    5. “Without any FCC at all, we’d have… bullies all over the dial.”

    It would be simply a property dispute, these happens among businesses all the time without a FCC to wort them out.

    Right now KPFA has to wait for the FCC to take action. Without the FCC KPFA could immediately file a lawsuit against the offending station for nuisance. It could get an immediate exparte order forcing the offending station to stop the problem. What would now take years would take weeks.

  7. lou says:

    #2, and #3. Their should and would be an FCC to ensure separation of frequencies and, of course, the physical safety of the public. The real question of the column was should the FCC be involved in the content of each frequency, meaning what it is used for.

    My general answer to that is NO with one main ‘yes’. Some frequency spectrum should be allocated for, and remain indefinitely, as public broadcast. People who buy the rights to this spectrum must maintain it is “open broadcast” (non-subscribed to or encrypted), and a certain minimum of time be used for “public service” however that is defined at the moment. The government would be able to take over this spectrum at any time (a la the emergency broadcast system).

    I would say, very arguably, allocate 3 AM, 3 FM and 3 TV frequencies to this. I would probably add a couple to be given directly to local governments to do as they see fit.

    One other exception I would make is that some frequency be allocated to mobile, over the air internet service, that would be required to be ‘net neutral’. The vendor could bid on it, charge what they want, but not have any content restrictions.

    To the rest of the frequencies out there, auction them off, but the most important thing is that the leases are limited in time, to be fully and freely reauctioned at the end (say 5 years). Heck lets make it even better, have some 1 year, some 2 year, some 10 year, some 25 year leases. Let the market decide.

  8. lou says:

    To add on what I said in #7, before anyone attacks, of course, public safety frequencies will be allocated as needed. I was mostly referring to the reallocation of the current broadcast frequencies AM/FM/VHF/UHF, etc. etc.

    On further thought, lets face facts… the world is moving towards convergence using IP. When true mobile broadband becomes a reality, the idea of tv and radio stations as frequency bands will be as quaint as the telegraph. Yes, we have to have (some) net neutrality, but in the end, the barrier costs of entry to be a media entity considerable lowered (as it already has on the fixed line internet).

    Personally, my Internet based entertainment watching/listening is probably more than my broadcast based (including cable/satellite/tivo, etc), and ever growing.

    At that point, some many of the concepts (FCC, media owners, barrier costs of entry to be a media player, etc) become moot.

    the discussion of the FCC being content regulators will be moot, the concept of media owners will b (Please, no big brother discussion needed here, as you get my point).

  9. Raff says:

    Sweet.. time to raise up the multiband antenna and fire up the 2kw amp..
    Radio free Raff is here..

    What I’m coming across your speakers and your stereo isn’t even on?

    Unplug the speaker wires.. or get a filter.. Its not my problem its yours..
    if you don’t like it move.. Or come pull my antenna down if you think your a bad ass..

  10. Bo says:

    It’s not just the physics of radio waves but the content that needs regulating. There used to be a policy known as “equal time” (“Fairness Doctrine”). Back then, say how the president’s policies are pure genius and can’t fail and someone else was allowed to pipe-in with an opposing view. There were exceptions but that was the rule. Today they just say “All hail King George” and cut to a sitcom.

  11. SN says:

    10. “It’s not just the physics of radio waves but the content that needs regulating.”

    Why does the content need regulating? If you’re watching or listening to something you don’t like turn it off. I’m not entirely sure why people think the government should act like one’s mother.

  12. TheGlobalWarmer says:

    #10 is referring to the latest myth that the rise of conservative talk radio and the failure of Air America is due to some neocon conspiracy to keep liberals off the air.

    The real reason is of course listener freedom. Radio stations make money from advertising, which they can only sell if they run shows that people actually listen to. People like Rush can certainly be hysterical bloviators at times, but they get ratings because people either agree with what they’re hearing or find it entertaining. Ahows like Al Franken’s on the other hand are mostly angry anti-Bush screeds that have no real substance. People listen for a while then can’t stand it any more.

    There’s no conspiracy and it has nothing to do with Fairness Doctrine.

    An FCC like agency is necessary to coordinate channel assignments and keep people from stomping on each other but they have no business regulating content. The free market decides what content people want to see.

    Imagine what TV would be like if stations were really free to broadcast what their audiences wanted. (75% of hotel PPV revenue comes from adult movies. That ought to give a clue to what the public really wants.)

  13. OhForTheLoveOf says:

    #9 Or come pull my antenna down if you think your a bad ass..

    I am a bad ass… But if you play good music, I’d rather NOT pull down your tower.

  14. OhForTheLoveOf says:

    #11 – Because we own the air waves. We aren’t talking about letting the government act like someone’s mom… We are talking about our absolute right (well, the right we used to have before we cancelled the Constitution and became the Corporate States of America) to use our airwaves.

    #12 – You don’t know what you are talking about. And let’s quit jabbering all day about the glorious free market. The right isn’t interested in a free market… They are interested in placing barriers to competition to protect the wealth they already have. Free markets in the classic sense are about competition, but those who extoll the free market virtues today are just protectionists. Free markets as they are discussed in this context just means that if you aren’t rich you can go fuck yourself.

    Fox, by the way, was 5 years in the red before becoming profitable.

    And if porn is what the public really wants, give it to them… You can’t post some bullshit about free markets THEN say the FCC shouldn’t regulate content AND THEN take a swipe at what you think the public wants as if they shouldn’t be allowed to make up thier own minds.

  15. SN says:

    14.

    I asked, “Why does the content need regulating?” And you answered, “Because we own the air waves.”

    Well, excuse me if I find that answer lacking. The fact that “we own the airwaves” doesn’t change the fact that if you don’t like what’s on TV, you have the absolute right to turn it off.

    To show why your answer is lacking… merely because we “own the airwaves” doesn’t give the government the right to regulate the content of phone conversations. E.g., the government cannot outlaw cell phone conversations concerning breasts.

    “Free markets as they are discussed in this context just means that if you aren’t rich you can go fuck yourself.”

    Exactly!

  16. OmarThe Alien says:

    My migration from broadcast/subscription radio/tv is almost complete; the top tier DSL line has nearly retired my TV, as I tossed the satellite and the coathanger only brings in four channels, one of which is ETV (cool). I would have kept the satellite, but the concept of paying a subscription to watch sucky content loaded with commercials offended my sense of smell.
    But I can see the government’s point: there are billions to be made force feeding the afore-mentioned sucky content to the millions of air heads that make up the majority of our population, and therefore a fertile source of taxes and bribes, or perhaps the phrase should be campaign contributions, exists for the harvesting.

  17. OhForTheLoveOf says:

    #15 – It isn’t that the content needs regulating… It’s that reasonable access to the airwaves need to be available to opposing views.

    I believe that in a pluralistic society such as ours, we need to make provisions to ensure that public discourse isn’t limited to a powerful minority.

    No one should ever be prevented from having a point of view presented, and those lucky enough to own a megaphone should not be curtialed in their use of it – but if your megaphone exists because you enjoy the use of the public’s airwaves, it isn’t unreasonable to suggest that those airwaves need to be shared to ensure that in our public dialog, all elements of a community have reasonable access to be heard.

    As you point out, I have the right not to listen. No one has ever argued that. Thing is, I’m not an ostridge. Of course I have a right not to listen. What I am demanding is a right to participate.

    Why is it such a hard concept to grasp, that a society is healthier if it is allowed to openly discuss issues rather than having the door shut on certain groups?

    “Free markets as they are discussed in this context just means that if you aren’t rich you can go fuck yourself.”

    Exactly!

    So… Are you saying I am right about that, or that it is right that the rich can muscle the poor…

    Because if it is the latter, then you are just flat out wrong. There is no wealth that exists without the exploitation of the poor in some way… I don’t get to spend the money my employer makes, but he doesn’t make is money without my work. Major media outlets owe a courtesy to the communities than creat thier wealth.

    Despite today’s temporary political climate of screwing over anyone making less than six figures, the reality is the rich haven’t earned any exclusive rights to lending voice to public discourse.

  18. SN says:

    “It’s that reasonable access to the airwaves need to be available to opposing views.”

    I totally agree with that. That’s why I think all of this media consolidation is bad for the country. The best way to ensure lots of opposing views is to allow for plenty of voices, not for the government to tell a few voices what to say. The negative effects of turning over about 50% of radio stations to ClearChannel proves my point exactly.

    “So… Are you saying I am right about that, or that it is right that the rich can muscle the poor…”

    I’m saying you’re right. I’ve been saying the same thing for years. Neither party wants a free market. The goal of every corporation in America is to monopolize their markets. The whole facade of “free markets” is just the means by which the status quo will carry it out.

  19. Greg Allen says:

    In some countries, they give the airwaves not to the highest bidder — but to the company that will deliver the lowest cell prices to the consumer.

    If the people really do own the airwaves, I think that is a much better way to do the bidding!

  20. Lauren the Ghoti says:

    We all know that allowing Clear Channel Communications to “regulate” itself is ludicrous. So what is so friggin’ complicated about reversing course and forbidding any given entity ownership of more than one media outlet in each market?

    Oh, yeah, I forgot. Wall Street, increasingly the only constituency the American gov’t recognizes, responds to, or protects, wouldn’t approve.

  21. TheGlobalWarmer says:

    How is the content not regulated by a free market? If Clear Channel put on programing people don’t want to hear, ratings go down and they lose money. Not smart business. Moonbats have poured tons of money Al Franken and his little Air America project and it’s gone bankrupt at least twice. Why, not because people didn’t have access, but because no one cares to listen to his drivel.

    Fox lost money for a while because they recognized the need to get a clear voice out there. The rest of the media is so biased they heap praise on a scumbag LIAR like Dan Blather. They’re simply trying to get the truth out. For anyone who thinks otherwise, I recommend a tinfoil hat.

  22. SN says:

    “If Clear Channel put on programing people don’t want to hear, ratings go down and they lose money.”

    Yep, and that’s exactly what is happening. Radio consolidation eliminated any diversity in programing and brought about safe but boring play lists, which reduced the amount of listeners. And of course profits are way down. Of course ClearChannel’s solution for that is to ask for more consolidation!

    “Why, not because people didn’t have access, but because no one cares to listen to his drivel.”

    To that I completely agree. Al Franken is an idiot. He wasn’t funny back in his SNL days or in his sitcom, why would anyone listen to him on the radio?!

  23. Lauren the Ghoti says:

    Re the right-wing dominance of radio:

    No mystery there; no need to call in Leonard Nimoy.

    The majority of liberals, unlike the majority of conservatives, don’t have any need to be told what to think.

  24. SN says:

    23. I think you’re on to something!

  25. Lauren the Ghoti says:

    #24 – SN

    Yes, I usually am.
    Except when a piss test looms…

    Oops! You said “on to something.” Sorr-ee…

  26. Mr. Fusion says:

    #23, Good comment.

    Just to add to #22. This radio consolidation has also had the effect of reducing the quality and variety of music heard. Only big stars are being heard. The result? People are being introduced to fewer acts on the radio so they buy fewer CDs.

  27. SN says:

    26. Right on. I cannot understand why the music industry is not pushing for less radio consolidation. If I wanted to sell music, I’d want the widest possible variety of music exposed.

    The music industry did great until radio started stagnating back in the late 70s and early 80s. When faceless artists such as Journey and Styx were considered high art.

    The music industry took off again when MTV started playing new music. But it took a turn for the worse in the early 90s when MTV stopped playing music. The music industry has been declining ever since.


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