Tales of the Sausage Factory

Support Low Power Radio: Call Your Representative Today!

Low Power FM is a non-commercial service authorized by the FCC in 2000. the National Association of Broadcasters and, to its eternal shame, National Public Radio lobbied Congress immediately thereafter to kill this potential competitor. While not successful in killing the service, the incumbents did manage to get the “Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act of 2000” passed, which severely limited the number of available LPFM licenses. You can get some more background and links at this old blog post of mine.

Today, July 19, 2009, the Prometheus Radio Project is asking everyone who cares about encouraging local, non-commercial radio — as well as anyone who cares about greater opportunities for folks to use the electronic media, to take part in a day of action. Please call your Representative and ask him or her to support the Local Community Radio Act of 2009, which would repeal the RBPA and restore the original rules to LPFM. This would create hundreds of new opportunities for local communities to once again enjoy locally-produced non-commercial radio programming. giving a very different perspective on life, news, art, and entertainment.

Details here.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Iowa Broadcasters to FCC: “We Do Localism! All It took Was A 500 Year Flood.”

One has to admire the utterly ruthless and meticulous way in which broadcasters will move swiftly to exploit absolutely any possible set of circumstances for their regulatory advantage. Case in point, this letter from Sue Toma, Executive Director of the Iowa Broadcaster’s Association to FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, touting their involvement in their communities during the recent terrible flooding.

Mind you, I am glad that Iowa broadcasters can get it together to do their job during a 500 year flood. And it is the job of trade associations to tout the good its members do — even when it is the sort of thing we expect them to do. And certainly Iowa broadcasters should be praised for stepping up to the plate when needed and recognized for playing their part — along with the other community businesses and volunteers from around the country who, unlike the broadccasters, are not under a legal obligation to provide service to the local community. But of course, for the broadcasters, that is not enough. As usual, the broadcasters behave rather like spoiled 6 year old children who expect bribes to do their homework or their chores. Hence inclusion of this little zinger at the end:

I can’t help but note that the Iowa floods come at a time when well meaning but misguided activists are questioning broadcasters’ commitment to localism. My response: Spend time in Iowa, and see first-hand how local and radio and TV stations are serving our communities during the worst flooding in a century. Iowa broadcasters have once again proven their exemplary commitment to the communities that we serve, without the need for more mandates, paperwork and unnecessary regulation.

In other words, that stations actually do their jobs in a once in a century crisis gets them off the hook for the remaining 99 years, 11 months. To which I can only say, giving proper credit and appreciate to stations doing the work they are supposed to do, “get real.” The real test of localism isn’t just how you do in a crisis and that somehow gives you a free pass on the rest of the license period. The real test of localism is how you serve your local community on a daily basis. That broadcasters refuse even to list what programming they show and what they think their viewers get out of the programming choices — whether news, or entertainment, or exposure to local culture and matters of local interest — should raise serious questions about whether broadcasters take their role as stewards of a public license held in trust for the local community seriously.

I recognize that leveraging responses to natural disasters for regulatory goodies is a hallowed tradition among broadcasters, so I’m not offended at the Iowa Broadcaster’s Association rushing to send this letter as soon as their laptops dried out. But because broadcasters get a lot of mileage out of their so called commitment to localism — such as cable must carry, the right to play music without paying performance royalties, and a rule against satellite radio providing local content that might compete — someone needs to call them on this. You can’t get the benefits of being a licensee with a duty to serve your local community without shouldering the responsibilities as well. So just as my son doesn’t get out of doing his chores just because he did his homework — even if he got an A — broadcasters don’t get excused from serving their community every regular day just because they came through during a flood or some other epic crisis. Kudos for doing a good job on this one, but it’s still your job and you’re supposed to do it well.

And, given that nearly 1 million people took the time to tell the FCC during its localism proceeding that they thought local broadcasters were doing a lousy job serving their local community (I make no claims as to Iowa, that’s national), it doesn’t seem out of line for the FCC to require you to actually tell the FCC how your programming serves the local community as required by your license and to make that documentation publicly available, a requirement broadcasters have gone to court to resist.

Finally, I can’t help but note that low power FM stations (that full power broadcasters fight tooth and nail to keep off the air) have likewise done amazing coverage of the flood and heroic service to their local communities — while still managing to produce local content and serve their communities on a regular basis. If they can pull their weight while still more than complying withe the “mandates, paperwork, and unnecessary regulations” that ensure they serve their local communities, I think the rest of the broadcast community in Iowa can do so as well. And ought to.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Why Jonathan Adelstein Totally Rocks!

It’s no big deal for a Commissioner of the FCC to go to a major trade show like NAB or the CTIA. It’s not even a surprise when Commissioners or their staff take the time to come to meetings of important constituency groups or proven political powerhouses. But who takes the time to show up to speak to a bunch of geeks and policy hackers from around the world of no particular political or financial importance? I mean, hearing about how folks in Northern India or Serbia or the North Lawndale neighborhood of Chicago are using unlicensed spectrum to massive improve the quality of life of their communities is nice and inspiring and all, but life is busy and time is short.

Which is why Jonathan Adelstein and his wireless advisor, Rene Crittendon, totally rock. Commissioner Adelstein and Crittendon came down yesterday to the Fourth International Summit on Community Wireless going on here in Washington D.C. You can read the gist of Commissioner Adelstein’s remarks here. I should add that I thought Adelstein’s speech as delivered was brilliant. He deftly drew together the important themes of wireless broadband, connecting people, human rights, and the benefits of digital inclusion. (If I can get a link to the speech or the audio, I will post it.)

After the speech, Adelstein stuck around to take questions and talk to folks. All in all, I think he and Renee ended up spending about two hours down here.

I have often lamented that policy makers in Washington rarely manage to get together with real people who are doing things. Even when folks come to town, it is a carefully managed “field trip” designed to maximize the effectiveness of presentation. It’s important, but it’s not the raw, unvarnished and not always polite perspective of scruffy tower-climbers and local community organizers.

No major policy initiatives, no big announcements. Heck, hardly a whisper of press coverage. But it means a lot when an FCC Commissioner and his advisor take two hours out of a busy day to come down and have an open conversation about things that people passionately believe matter.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Open Mouth, Insert Foot, and Hopefully Learn Lesson.

Generally, I try to limit myself to talking about things I know about and recognize what I don’t know about. But, like most of us, I occassionally think I know more than I do. Such is the case of my recent comment in ComputerWorld about the muni deployment situation in San Francisco. In the last few days, I’ve received a barrage of angry letters and calls from friends of mine on the ground in SF wanting to know what the Hell I was thinking when I said: “”They’ve created a mess in San Francisco where the city seems to be negotiating with Google or Earthlink and not the community.”

Sadly, I cannot even say I was misquoted or taken out of context. Matt Hamblen got my quote exactly right. It turns out, however, that I had it exactly wrong. As my angry SF friends have let me know in no uncertain terms, the City of San Francisco, Google and Earthlink have been conducting neighborhood surveys, meeting with local community leaders, and responding to this input with substantive changes.

So how did I screw up so badly? And what did I learn from all this? See below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

This Genuine Commemorative 1993 Petition for Recon Available If You Act Within 30 Days

Back before I finished law school, my employer Media Access Project was arguing that broadcast stations that did nothing but air program-length commercials (aka the Home Shopping Network and its various clones) did not serve the public interest and therefore did not deserve one of the scarce licenses made available for broadcast television. This being back in the day when there was still some expectation that broadcasters needed to demonstrate that they served the “public interest, convenience and necessity” as required by the statute, you understand. i.e. a long time ago.

As part of the 1992 Cable Act, Congress forced the FCC to have a proceeding to determine if stations that did only home shopping served the public interest. Unsurprisingly, the FCC found that there is a vital public interest need for people who could not otherwise get zirconium diamonds or commemorative collectors plates.

And you wonder why we learned to treat the “public interest” as a joke?

Anyway, my boss, Andy Schwartzman, filed a petition for reconsideration after the FCC issued its decision in 1993. Under the statute, you must file a petition for reconsideration before going to court. So MAP filed, arguing that the Commission had not really done its job when it claimed that Home Shopping Network and other such stations served the local community, and that the Commission had failed to consider other valuable uses of the spectrum.

And there the matter sat — for fourteen bloody years! — with us unable to go to court until the Commission resolved the damn thing. It became something of a joke. Every year, Andy would have a meeting with the Chairman of the FCC, and every year would ask about this petition. Every time someone new got named as head of the FCC’s Media Bureau, we’d trundle over with our wish list of outstanding proceedings, and at the top of the list was always Petition for Reconsideration in Docket No. 93-8. And every time, the Chairman or the Chief of the Media Bureau would promise to look into the matter. And the matter sat….and sat…..and sat….

Until Kevin Martin, under pressure from the new Democratic Congress, started putting the squeeze on the FCC staff to get the damn backlog under control. And then — Wonder of Wonders, Miracle of Miracles! — the staff decided to address our pending Petition for Recon. Of course, by this time, the record had gotten a tad “stale” (more like “mummified”) so the Bureau issued a Public Notice soliciting comment to refresh the record.

Aside from my personal venting, however, why should anyone care? After all, how many home shopping channels are there at this point (not broadcasters who run infomercials from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m., I mean broadcasters who only show home shopping)?

Because, as explained below, this proceeding actually provides an important opportunity to make two points. First, that the public interest really does matter. After years of neglect, there is (I hope) a body of very angry people ready to tell the FCC that the Commission cannot get away with treating the statutory requirement to serve the local community as a joke; that endless chances to buy adorable porceline figurines of kittens do not make up for the total absence of local programming and coverage of meaningful local news. Second, that there are plenty of more valuable uses for broadcast spectrum, like say opening it up for unlicensed use.

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

My speech from the Community Wireless Conference

On March 31-April 2, I attended the Second National Summit for Community Wireless. It was an amazing event. The energy was unbelievable. My one regret was that I agreed to do two panels. Because the panels were so long, that meant doing two thirds of the day talking when I wanted to be attending other things and learning what was going on.

And there is plenty going on in Community Wireless. Community wireless can include a local government, or “muni wireless” component, but it doesn’t have to. At it’s best, community wireless is about empowering a local community to use the tool of wireless intra-net and inter-net to reenforce everything good about the community. If the community owns the network, and uses it to create educational, social and other opportunities the members of the community value, then community wireless works real well.

I got to give the final plenary talk. I spoke from bullet points, and got really worked up emotionally while speaking (my voice actually broke on the last few lines). My attempts to recreate my speach feel overly wordy and intellectual compared to what I actually said. But I think it is still a valuable exercise to try to capture what I said and put up somewhere people can see. Hopefully, it will do some good.

Remember, we can change the world by talking.

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Tales of the Sausage Factory: Why A Comcast/Disney Merger Sucks Rocks

This op ed appeared in the industry Magazine Broadcasting and Cable on Monday Feb. 23.

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