AFTER YEARS of static, radio is getting the big station break it always wanted. The federal government is about to take its heavy hand off America's radio dials. By a 6-to-1 vote, the Federal Communications Commission has decided to free the country's radio stations from longstanding and once purposefully tight government regulations on programming, not to mention from all the rdiculous paper work that went with it.
More on this in a moment - but first, this word of caution: the decision does not necessairly mean that the earplugs and full-blast speakers around the country will be filled with better things to listen to. In fact, one of the vanishing "regs" in this deregulation is that which set specific maximum limits on commercials; another of the rules set minimum time requirements for public affairs programming.
But now back to the origin of these regulations: what was the original justification for the controls? In 1934, there were fewer than 590 radio stations in the country. This meant that (1) most of them had to be "general purpose" stations, catering to entire markets, and 2) as such, their use of the then-limited public airwaves entailed a formal responsibility to serve the total public.
Today, however, there are nearly 9,000 radio stations on the air, about 8,000 of them commercial operations. In the Washington area alone, there are about 49 signals that reach us all. There's a little more running room on those dials for more specialized programming and whatever else lively competition for listeners produces. FCC Chairman Charles D. Ferris, whose leadership of the agency during this administration was significant in the welcome movement toward more open braodcasting, explains that "no longer will radio broadcasters be required to follow empty governmentally required procedures and compile stacks of paper work. Instead, they will be able to follow their own path in determining how to serve their community's needs and interests in ways that reflect the realities of today's radio markets."
A "victory for the industry," as one headline put it? Sure, and let us note right here that The Post Company has had more than a little corporate interest in radio in the past ad in television still. But a lively marketplace on the air, and how many people tune in or tune out, are far better guides than government regulations to determine what programs to broadcast or how many commercials to stack in any given hour. With today's competition, the public has to best controls -- they're called "on-off" and "selector."