Despite the Federal Communications Commission's recent lifting of rules that require radio stations to air public affairs programming, the top executive of the Mutual Broadcasting System does not fear a potential loss of affiliates.
Although Mutual's orientation and the principal reason why stations use Mutual services is its news coverage, Martin Rubenstein, Mutual's president and chief executive officer, believes the network and the broadcasting industry will benefit from the FCC's recent radio deregulation decision.
"Some of my broadcasting brethren had linked or accepted regulation because it afforded them perceived convenience," Rubenstein said in a recent interview. "I never believed that."
But deregulation is just one of a series of changes that may alter the shape of the radio industry. For simultaneously, the Mutual network, which is run from a modern facility atop a Crystal City office building is making a $10 million commitment to satellite technology, which Rubenstein says will make Mutual the first major radio network to utilize the speed and efficiency of satellite-to-earth-station links.
About 100 earth stations will link Mutual's more than 900 affiliates and enable the network to feed several programs directly to local stations simultaneously. "What satellites are going to do for us is to create the first opportunity for change in the radio distribution system in the last 50 years," Rubenstein said. "Other radio networks are talking about it, but we're doing it.
In other ways, too, Mutual, a 46-year-old network now owned by the privately held Amway Corp., is unique. For one thing, it is the only national commercial network based in the Washington area. And it is the only major radio only network in the country, which Rubenstein believes gives Mutual a distinct advantage.
Rubenstein should know, since he spent 17 years with American Broadcasting Co., including a stint as vice president and general manager of ABC News. "With that experience in back of me, I know that the other radio networks are second thoughts of television companies," he said. "Their emphasis is going to be on television. We don't have that problem."
In part for that reason, Mutual has what Rubenstein considers a unique opportunity to take an occasional chance in a highly competitive business. For one thing, Mutual's "The Larry King Show," carried locally over WTOP, and nationwide over more than 200 other stations, has become the first all-night national talk show.
Mutual also has played a sifnificant role in revitalizing nationwide radio programming, airing several holiday country music specials across the country, for example. Mutual also tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to spur a revival of nationwide commercial drama with "Mutual Radio Theater," which the network recently dropped because of a lack of advertiser support.
"We were very happy with the quality of the program," Rubenstein said. "But it is a very expensive program form. There are some things the advertising fraternity hasn't caught up with. People in advertising were raised on television. Those are the folks we have to educate."
"We'll be back to drama," he added. "We were a little ahead of our time."
Another unique characteristic of Mutual is that its 90-day contracts with stations, designed in part so that the network can "upgrade" the "quality" of affiliates, permits the company to market its programming to stations other than the primary affiliates. If an affiliate is not interested in a particular Mutual show, another station in that market can pick it up.
Therefore, in the Washington area, four different stations, including the new Mutual affiliate here, WGMS, broadcast Mutual programming. A recent shift in management priorities at WTOP resulted in Mutual's shifting its affiliation to WGMS, the classical music station, although WTOP has retained King's popular talk show.
Rubenstein says the shift was a good one for Mutual because its news shows are heard on the hour and on the half-hour over WGMS, while WTOP used Mutual news just at 30 minutes after the hour. "We are very pleased and comfortable being associated with WGMS because the kind of people we want to reach are right there and we get more exposure," Rubenstein said.
Since Amway bought Mutural four years ago, the network also has bought two major stations, WCFL in Chicago and WHN in New York, both highly successful music stations. Rubenstein says Mutual also will look carefully at other possible purchases.
For now, however, the Mutual operation is run by about 250 employes in Crystal City, and staffed by another 1,000 part-time reporters and others around the world. Rubenstein reports that sales rose by about 20 percent in the previous fiscal year, and Mutual now is linked with affiliates in each of the nation's top 100 markets.
Rubenstein, an attorney, rises at 4 each morning to listen to Mutual and the competition. He is outspoken on the public-affairs role of the radio industry and the First Amendment responsibilities that he believes the FCC's deregualtion program only encourages for broadcasters. h
"Mutual's main product is news," he said last fall in a speech to the Federal Communications Bar Association. "If the commission decides that nonentertainment programming guidelines should be deleted, theoretically Mutual could lose some of its affiliates who will no longer feel compelled to air any news at all.
"I do not believe, however, that this will happen, or certainly not at any significant degree. By and large, broadcasters know that the audience values news, and they will continue to program news even without government prodding to do so.
"Obviously some broadcasters may decide not to include any news at all in their programming," he said. "Any business which Mutual will lose as a result of this deregulation, however, will be insignificant and will be a very small price to pay for obtaining our First Amendment rights."
He believes that radio programming regulation and the Fairness Doctrine -- which may undergo congressional scrutiny this year and is designed to insure ideological balance over the airwaves -- only have given the industry a crutch that blocks the airing of controversial subjects.
The Fairness Doctrine, he said in that speech, "actually makes it difficult to deal with controversial issues. Broadcasters feel that they will be accused of not covering the various sides of an issue, and thus opt to cover none."