The Federal Communications Commission proposed rules yesterday that are expected to result in almost total deregulation of the nation's 8,653 radio stations.
The commission specifically proposed:
Elimination of all requirements that radio licensees demonstrate they have ascertained and addressed the needs and problems of their communities.
Elimination of all limitations on the amount of time radio stations can devote to commercials.
Ending of requirements on the minimum amount of non-entertainment programming such as news and public affairs that must be provided by radio stations.
Ending of requirements that commercial stations keep strict logs of their programming for the FCC, but require stations that continue to keep logs for themselves to make those logs available for public inspection.
"The action we have proposed today is a new step in our continuing effort to seek and find more effective and efficient ways to make communications responsive to public needs," said FCC Chairman Charles Ferris. He said the information gathered by the FCC staff on radio operations "indicates that in radio broadcasting, the public interest can be met most effectively by the forces of competition in the radio marketplace."
Consumer groups said they would oppose at least part of the proposal, on grounds that it would make radio stations less responsive to the public. The leading industry trade group, the National Association of Broadcasters, said it was "pleased" with the proposal and "optimistic" that it would be accomplished.
Ferris said in an interview that "the radio business has changed significantly," noting that 2,500 of the 8,653 radio stations today began operations since 1967.
FCC requirements that stations carry minimum news and public affairs content have become moot. Ferris said, becuase "local news is now a money maker. Statistics demonstrate that news is a very lucrative part of radio. It is carried during prime time, with high advertising appeal and intensity."
"As I view it," he said, "what we are doing is merely recognizing what has taken place in radio already. You have to be sensitive to what the public wants in order to survive in radio."
When the regulation of radio began with the Communications Act of 1934, Ferris pointed out, the radio broadcast industry was much different. Because there was a small number of stations, the government imposed regulations requiring the stations to act in the public interest.
But now, Ferris contends, radio stations far exceed federal requirements for news and public affairs programming because the public demands it. And since the public has a much broader listening option, stations must provide the service the public demands, or risk the consequences.
He said the commission will, however, continue to emphasize the need for more minority ownership in broadcasting, and still regulate the medium in other areas, such as enforcement of the fairness doctrine, or obscenity restrictions.
There was considerable discussion of the FCC action during a long commission meeting yesterday.
One commissioner, Abbott Washburn, said he supported the portion of the new rules dealing with non-entertainment programming, but had questions about scrapping the responsibility imposed on stations to ascertain key local issues and deal with them on the air. He also said he opposed proposals to end limitations on the amount of commercialization allowed.
"I am convinced," Washburn said, "that the public expects the FCC to involve itself in commercialization. It expects us to indicate reasonable limits beyond which a broadcaster is overcommercializing and imposing an undue burden on the listening and viewing audiences."
And some consumer advocates also expressed concern about the proposals.
"I think it is unfortunate," said Andy Schwartzman of the Media Access Project, 'because a very significant portion of the American public will be disserved if these porposals are adopted."
Schwartzman said the FCC plan "will permit commercial broadcasters to pick and choose from the demographically attractice listeners and completely ignore the needs of other elements of the community with less clout."
The National Association of Broadcasters said, "We urge the FCC to take expedited action on elimination of onerous rules and paperwork and thereby allow broadcasters to put the manpower and money involved in radio regulation to better use in the public interest."
The FCC will take public comment on its porposals for the next 120 days, and allow another 90 days for responses to the comment filed. It then has an indefinite time to decide what final action to take.