Lawmakers and consumer activists who have fought broadcasting's urge to merge yesterday criticized the Federal Communication Commission's Thursday decision to loosen the rules governing ownership of television and radio stations.

"I'm surprised and disappointed that they have taken this action," said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), who two weeks before had sent a letter to the FCC, co-signed by Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.), requesting that it not allow broadcasters to own more than one station per city.

Under the new system, a single owner could control as many as two stations in big cities if at least eight local stations exist after the deal, and as long as one of them isn't among the top four in that area.

Some companies already own more than one station in the same area, but those purchases were transacted through a patchwork of waivers and temporary permits. The FCC argued that it was bringing consistency to the structure.

But Dorgan noted that Congress substantially relaxed ownership rules in the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and has seen "galloping concentration" of ownership since then. Dorgan said "there's no excuse for allowing greater concentration at this time, since having fewer owners overall "injures diversity and localism," or local ownership of broadcast stations. Dorgan said he understood that the commissioners of the FCC had "substantial pressure being applied to them by broadcasters and others, but they ought to be impervious to that pressure."

"We are of course displeased that the commission has relaxed these rules at all," said Gene Kimmelman, co-director of the Washington offices of Consumers Union, but "we are encouraged that they have preserved the principle of ownership limits and promoting diversity through independent ownership of separate stations."