The Senate Commerce Committee, using the budget as a vehicle, yesterday approved two major pieces of broadcasting legislation, including a measure that would grant radio stations permanent licenses.
The legislation adopts many parts of the radio deregulation program already endorsed by the Federal Communications Commission. The granting of indefinite license periods for radio stations, instead of the current three-year license period, is not part of the FCC's action.
A number of citizen groups are challenging the FCC's action in an appeals court proceeding, claiming that the action, which, for instance, lifts news and public affairs requirements from station operators, will strip the public of rights to challenge station procedures.
The legislation eliminates comparative license proceedings for radio stations and sets up a random selection process for awarding new licenses.Stations also would be freed from a regulation requiring them to survey the public regularly in an effort to determine potential audience concerns.
The piece of the legislation dealing with television stations is not quite as sweeping, although it extends licenses from three to five years and adopts a similar lottery-like procedure for awarding new permits.
According to Senate sources, the legislation was considered as part of the budget process because another part of the package sets up a new license fee system for radio and television licensees as a means to cut from the FCC's budget.
But the decision to consider the legislation, the key parts of the committee leadership's broadcasting deregulation program, drew immediate criticism from a representative of a citizen's group opposed to the licensing and other changes in radio and television regulation. "It is unfair that public groups like ours and organized labor were not informed that this would be done today," said Samuel Simon, executive director of the National Citizens Committee for Broadcasting. "By tying it to budget matters, they are assuring that these measures will not be directly considered. They are seeking fundamental changes in the nation's communications laws that deserve separate consideration before the entire Senate."
The House Commerce Committee, the panel with comparable oversight responsibilities, is planning to consider broadcasting legislation as a separate matter from budget considerations. Therefore, it is unlikely that the broadcasting measure will be adopted during House-Senate conferences on budgetary matters.