Last week in San Antonio was the big FCC hearing on localism, number two of six in a series. Judging from the news accounts I've been reading, it looks like it was a pretty lively event. Here are some excerpts and highlights.
From the Chron:
From Asleep at the Wheel's Ray Benson to struggling Houston songwriter T.C. Smythe, Texas musicians are blaming federal deregulation of broadcast media for shoving local talent off the nation's airwaves.
"Just as strip malls with national brand-name retailers have homogenized the look and feel of large and small towns across America, so in certain instances has radio done much the same thing to music," said Benson, a 35-year industry veteran.
"If you take 18 or 20 records and play them over and over again, people will learn to eat that kind of crap," he said.
The same principle applies to news, Benson said, joining others who said distant ownership or management of media is ill-advised.
Smythe said it's been nearly impossible to break into commercial radio station playlists.
"I've learned that if I don't write a song that can make people want to drink beer or buy insurance, commercial radio won't play it," she said.
She presented the five commissioners with a CD of Houston-based songwriters and musicians "who despite their efforts and outrageous talent are denied air time for one reason: Local broadcasters will not play independent music," she said.
At an open microphone session, Scott Frost, 16, a junior at Marshall High School, implored the FCC commissioners to listen to the public more than corporate America.
"What I'm asking is you protect our interest," said Frost, who got permission from his mom to miss school to line up at 8 a.m. to speak to commissioners. "You protect our views and you protect us."
Second-grade teacher Anita Cisneros, 30, said San Antonio needs high-quality bilingual, educational and other local programs that represent Mexican-Americans and Chicanos.
"I want quality and accessibility," Cisneros told the commissioners.
Aside from a few people praising the Amber Alert system or help given to their charities, most of the public and invited panelists alike made it quite clear to Powell that his professed support for localism is undercut by his own stance on ownership. "The issue is not whether broadcasters are being local to a greater or lesser degree, but rather whether the lax ownership rules hinder the democratic process and exclude community interests and representation," said panelist Lydia Camarillo, vice-president of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project. "Diversity of ownership breeds competition, and competition breeds better journalism and diverse perspectives in the news."
Camarillo was especially concerned that minority viewpoints suffered under consolidation. Despite a growing Latino electorate, she said, Americans were not able to understand the potential power in such gains because Latino stories "are not being told by Latinos, and even more rarely are they reported by Latinos. ... The number of television stations owned by minorities in the past three years has dropped from 33 to 20."
In response, Clear Channel's San Antonio market manager responded to the protest by equating community interests with commercial interests. "In my world, localism is more than a concept," said Tom Glade. "It's the way I operate my business. And the reason couldn't be simpler – it's called the radio scan button. ... Our listeners have many, many choices for news, information, and entertainment." In San Antonio, though, several of those "many" choices – one TV and six radio stations – are owned by Clear Channel.
Other corporate reps likewise missed the point. Steve Giust, general manager of San Antonio Univision affiliate KWEX-TV, was asked by an audience member, "If Univision is working to meet the community interests, as you assert, why does it portray such a narrow range of women on its own programming?" Giust artlessly replied, "We have lovely women on some of our shows" – a comment which drew lusty booing. He continued, "Locally, I think our local talent is just as beautiful as our network talent," garnering more catcalls. Rather than dig his hole any deeper, he stammered, "That's all I have to say."
For media activists, January 28 started early, at 4 a.m., and ended late, about 19 hours after the first people cocooned themselves in heavy blankets and queued up by the entrance to City Council Chambers, waiting for the Federal Communications Commission hearing to begin.
It was not an accident that FCC Chairman Michael Powell chose San Antonio to be one of six U.S. cities to host a public hearing. One of the largest media conglomerates and a generous contributor to the Bush administration, Clear Channel, is headquartered here. Powell, the son of Secretary of State Colin Powell, could expect CEO Lowry Mays to be a hospitable and doting host - despite the $755,000 fine for indecency the FCC conveniently levied against the company the day before.
Clear Channel's presence, the interest from FCC supporters and opponents, and the emotional intensity that colored the day's events illustrate how strongly the issues of media ownership and localism resonate in San Antonio.
The events that took place outside the hearing were arguably as important as the hearing itself. Behind the scenes, while telecommunications giant SBC hosted a luncheon for Powell and select area college students, members of a pirate radio station broadcast its protest (until the transmitter ran out of juice) in front of Clear Channel's main office, and a Clear Channel billboard on Hildebrand was tagged.
The hour-long rally in Main Plaza featured speeches from small Texas broadcasters, public interest organizations, and ethnic groups. "The media plays a pivotal role in shaping public opinion and creating lasting images," proclaimed Nadine Saliba from the Arab and International Women's Association. "The media has toed the government line when it comes to issues affecting Arab Americans; it has echoed the administration's propaganda and has engaged in a degree of auto censorship that is shameful and inexcusable in a free society. And things stand to get worse with the FCC project for media consolidation."
Two hours before the hearing, the AFL-CIO issued a Cornell University study - which the labor union commissioned - concluding that, newsflash: Clear Channel's control of broadcast media, sports management, billboards, talent agencies, promotions, ticket vendors, and performance venues undermines musicians. (Go to here to order the entire study.)