Somewhere out here, way beyond the Beltway, where the real America lives, are the People, the mythic folk for whom Washington toils. And despite the snow and the ice, the four men and one woman of the Federal Communications Commission traveled today to find those People and to glean from them just how ticked off or tickled they might be about the bland pap or the fine entertainment that they watch on TV and listen to on the radio.
The commissioners slipped and slid their way to Virginia's capital to give the public its one chance to stand before them and instruct the feds on whether it really matters if one company owns most of the radio stations in town, or if a handful of companies control nearly every show on TV. By May, the commission expects to decide whether to lift all remaining restrictions on media ownership.
Do the People care who owns their TV and radio stations, who feeds them their media gruel? By midday, 195 of the People had made their way to the convention center here. One hundred nineteen of them were white men in suits; many of those men were grumbling about the trip down from Washington. Twenty-two people were scheduled to address the commission; 13 of them had traveled here from the District.
But Anthony Mazza and his friends had made it in from Philadelphia, where they have grown so tired of bland broadcast fare that they attached cardboard TV set frames to their heads and sat in the hearing room wearing blue lab coats -- their protest against 500 channels of nothing to watch.
"Listeners are turning off the radio in huge numbers and the media companies don't care," Mazza says, "because the only thing that matters to them is getting their share of whatever audience there is." Mazza, 30 and unemployed, has a show on Radio Volta, a small community station in Philadelphia that lets him play everything from hard-core hip-hop to old country songs to swing-era jazz. It's all his choice, radio the way it used to be, one person programming for whoever might listen.
That is not the corporate way, as described by Mark Mays, president of Clear Channel Communications, the behemoth that dominates the radio dial in many cities. Clear Channel, he said today, plays "the music our listeners want to hear," as determined by "extensive local audience research, listener requests and feedback." Mays argues that Americans like the wave of consolidation that swept through the radio industry after 1996, when the FCC eliminated the limit on the number of radio stations a company could own nationwide and raised the number a company could own in any one city from two to eight. That reform, Mays and other media executives argue, increased the variety and quality of programming, bringing big-city talent to little towns where the radio station used to be owned by a local family and programmed by low-rent talent.
And what if the people in those little towns liked their homey old radio stations the way they were? In Richmond, where Clear Channel owns six stations, Mays proudly announced that it has enriched the airwaves by adding alternative rock and hip-hop to the menu of formats on the local dial.
But David Croteau, a sociologist at Virginia Commonwealth University here, told the commission that Clear Channel's domination of the Richmond market has meant "the loss of local content in favor of homogenized national programming," including the "gutting" of WRVA, a local institution that had specialized in local news and talk until Clear Channel fired many of its local personalities and substituted national shows.
Limiting the number of outlets media companies may own has been at the core of the FCC's regulation of broadcasting since radio first came on the scene. But FCC Chairman Michael Powell and other Republicans have been asking -- in part because courts keep raising doubts about the FCC's rules -- whether those controls make any sense in a media landscape that defies limits. If there are hundreds of cable channels and Internet radio and satellite radio and infinite Web sites, why should it matter if Viacom, Clear Channel, Disney and AOL Time Warner dominate the broadcast business?
Powell has said he is inclined to scrap many of the existing curbs on ownership. If all limits were lifted, newspapers would once again be permitted to own broadcast outlets in the same city, and TV could go the way of radio with a massive sell-off of stations to the biggest companies.
But Commissioner Michael Copps warned that a severe reduction in the number of owners of stations could lead to even lower quality and more indecent programming. And commissioners heard about a new study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a Washington nonprofit group. Its research shows that larger companies and network-owned TV stations produce lower-quality news shows than do smaller media companies.
Still, much of the debate over media ownership revolves around goals that sound laudable but are short on specifics. The commission seeks to ensure that the nation's airwaves are competitive, diverse and local. But there's no consensus that those goals would produce better programs.
Is it competition when eight of Washington's major radio stations are owned by Clear Channel? Is diversity the fact that Clean Channel puts a different flavor of pop music on each of its stations, or is diversity a problem because in many U.S. cities, there is no commercial station that plays jazz, classical, techno, bluegrass or standards?
And what does local mean in an era when a disc jockey sitting in a Dallas studio can record shows for listeners in Des Moines, Tallahassee and Richmond and give each town its local references -- the high school basketball game, the slick interstate, the city council's latest scandal -- without ever setting foot in that city? Ever since 1996, Clear Channel and other huge companies have found all sorts of economies of scale: There are even local talk-radio shows hosted -- though the listeners don't know it -- by talkers who sit in studios thousands of miles away, keeping up with "local" events through the miracle of the Internet.
Most at the hearing wanted to talk more about content than the media's methods. Brent Bozell III, president of the Parents Television Council, told commissioners that "I have never taken a position that does anything other than advocate open markets," and he ventured a guess that not 1 percent of Americans care much about media competition. But, he said, Americans "are disgusted, revolted, fed up, horrified -- I don't know how else to underscore this -- by the raw sewage, the ultraviolence, the graphic sex, the raunchy language that is flooding into their living rooms day and night."
And yet, in recent years, the FCC, even though its own rules ban indecency, has fined precisely zero broadcasters for spewing indecent material, Bozell said.
So here was a staunch libertarian bemoaning the lack of government regulation, followed by a liberal lawyer, Robert Corn-Revere, singing the praises of the free, unfettered market that permits broadcasters to show anything and everything.
The lineup at the hearing united left and right as defenders of the small against the executives and lawyers of the big media companies. The old-fashioned idea of the airwaves as public property still excites both ends of the political spectrum, and Republicans and Democrats alike were stirred by the story of WRYR, a tiny new FM radio station on Maryland's Eastern Shore that is one of the first such hyper-local outlets to emerge from the FCC's experiment in low-power stations.
WRYR is owned by the South Arundel Citizens for Responsible Development, an anti-sprawl group that uses its airwaves to inform citizens about developers who seek to alter the nature of communities along the Chesapeake. "You'll hear local folk artists and storytellers telling the tales of skipjacks with the local music of the watermen," said Mike Shay, the station's project manager.
There are no mega-millions here; WRYR stays on the air for $600 a month. There's no on-air begging, either. Local businesses kick in the little money that's needed; the staff is all volunteer.
Everybody seems to like the idea of WRYR; nobody seems quite certain about how to foster more of that and less of what much of commercial broadcasting has become.
Although the FCC is likely to act this spring, it is now required by Congress to review its rules on ownership every two years. Tom Krattenmaker, a Washington communications lawyer who moderated the hearing, thanked Congress profusely "for digging this deep trough from which we may feed for many years to come."
And then, with snow looming, everyone went home to Washington.