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Media Responsibility and the Iowa License Renewals

Nicholas Johnson

Talk of Iowa

Gayane Torosyan, Host

WSUI-AM910, Iowa City and WOI-AM640, Ames, Iowa

May 31, 2005


Note: The Talk of Iowa program originating from WSUI is scheduled from 10:00 to 11:00 a.m. On May 31, 2005, however, President George W. Bush's news conference ran from about 9:50 to 10:40, leaving only 20 minutes for Talk of Iowa.

The audio of this program is also available.



Gayane Torosyan [GT]:  Hello and welcome to Talk of Iowa, Iím Gayane Torosyan. With me in our studio today is Nicholas Johnson, waiting patiently for the last 20 minutes of this program to get on the air and discuss media reform and media responsibility [See "Note," above].

Professor Johnson teaches at the University of Iowa College of Law.  He is a highly visible person, and you can find out more about him if you go to his Web page at www.nicholasjohnson.org.  Professor Johnson is also a former FCC commissioner.  He knows a lot about broadcasting and responsibility and regulation in the private and mixed sectors.

Letís talk about the conference that you attended recently, May 13th through the 15th in St. Louis.  It was also a very visible event.  What was that about?

Nicholas Johnson [NJ]: Well, Iíll tell you Gayane, when I was on the FCC and afterwards as chair of the National Citizenís Committee for Broadcasting, weíd get media reformers together and weíd be lucky if we had 17 people.

This thing, the National Media Reform Conference Ė there was one about a year and a half ago in Madison, and it wasnít 17 people who showed up, it was 17 hundred people who showed up.  This thing is just sweeping the nation as the media's abuses, particularly in commercial media, have irritated more and more people.

This year in St. Louis, a couple weeks ago, there were 2500 people and there would have been 4000 if they hadnít closed off registration.

So we are seeing hundreds of groups around the country that are getting involved once again in license challenges and filing complaints with the FCC, producing their own local programming, as with our local public access channels and so forth.

Normally the FCC considers license renewals for all the stations in a state at the same time.  When I was on the FCC, that was every three years. Now it is every eight years.

This is the year in Iowa.  We now have in Iowa -- I had nothing to do with organizing this thing I hasten to say -- but we now have in Iowa something called "Iowans for Better Local TV." They have a website Ė www.ibltv.org, and the I-B-L-T-V s for Iowans for Better Local Television. The Iowa stations, the television stations, are up this year and citizens all across the state are getting involved.

GT:  I would like to get our listeners involved in our conversation as well.  The number to call is 1-866-780-9100 in about 12 or 13 minutes, if you could give us a call with your questions or comments.  The email address is talk@uiowa.edu, 1-866-780-9100, to discuss responsibility and regulations with Nicholas Johnson.

So, Professor Johnson, this organization [IBLTV] was formed in Iowa as a response to license renewal, or was it triggered by something else?  Were people upset about Sinclair, which is governing a number of television stations in the area including KGAN?

NJ: KGAN, Channel 2 in Cedar Rapids.

Sinclair is now the largest owner of television stations in the country. I believe they have 62.  They have two here in the state of Iowa.  There have been a lot of complaints about Sinclair and its stations; the way in which it is using them for ideological and partisan purposes, and cutting back on news in a way that results in less coverage of the local issues and information that people in any community need to have.

I think it is important to understand what you mentioned as a mixed economy. President Bush just referred to China, one of the most economically successful economies in the world today.  China is a Communist country, and yet they have  entrepreneurs.

Here [in the U.S.] we think of ourselves as a free private enterprise, market economy. But if by "socialism" you mean something owned and operated by the state, weí have Interstate 80, a "socialist highway" running through the state. We have three socialist state universities, and socialist public schools all across the state, and public libraries, and so forth.

So, [like China] we have a mixed economy, too. And broadcasting is one example of that.

In most countries, it [broadcasting; initially radio] was set up as a public corporation, because those countries felt that it was too politically powerful to trust to private individuals and too important to turn over to commercialism.

In this country, we came up with a kind of a compromise, where we have private operators of the stations, but the airwaves are owned by the people and regulated by the government. A commercial station operator is told how high the antenna tower can be, and what kind of light has to be at the top of it, and what hours they can operate, and with what power, and on what frequency.  So, it is very much a government-private partnership.

And one of the conditions of that [partnership] is that they have to come in to ask to have their licenses renewed.

As I say, it used to be every three years, now every eight, and this is the year in Iowa.

GT:  There used to be some tougher conditions on those broadcast operators, such as public service, community ascertainment, the Fairness Doctrine.  Why did those go away?

NJ:  I think as the result of industry pressure and the inability or unwillingness of Congress and the FCC to stand up to what is for them, as a political force, the single most powerful industry in America.

So, ironically, they [politicians] have sold out to the industry in ways that disadvantage them [the politicians] ultimately often times in politics. That's whatís happened.

Itís the combination of the FCC removing the very few regulations that we had, along with permitting this rapid expansion of ownership of stations.

When I was there [at the FCC], no single licensee could hold licenses to more than seven AM and seven FM stations, and I thought that was too many.  And now Clear Channel has I think some 1200 radio stations across the country.

So you combine that with a failure to focus on responsibility to the community and you have a very devastating power.  As one of the members of Congress said back in 1927 when they were debating the 1928 Radio Act,

"if we should ever allow this power to fall into the hands of the few, then woe be to those who would dare to disagree with them."
[For the precise quote and source, see Nicholas Johnson, "Forty Years of Wandering in the Wasteland," 55 F.C.L.J. 521 (2003), n. 31.]

Thatís what weíre confronting today.

GT: And Senator John McCain has also said that those relaxed rules have not only been blessed by big media, but even written by their lobbyists.  So, this is what you are referring to.

1-866-780-9100 in the remaining 10 or so minutes, you can call us at Talk of Iowa toll free and speak to Nicholas Johnson, former FCC Commissioner, now a professor at the University of Iowa College of Law.  Or send us an email at talk@uiowa.edu.  Professor Johnsonís web address is www.nicholasjohnson.org.

What should people do? First of all, Iowans for Better Television is an organization that is operating here. What should people do to join or to join their voices at least, to express their opinion in relation to media issues?

NJ: Well, the first thing, of course, is to get informed.

You can find out more about this local organization, Iowans for Better Local Television.  They have a web site and that will give you the information you need.  I donít know all of that myself.  As I say, this is not an organization that I had anything to do with starting.  They are on the web at www.ibltv.org.  And I think they meet on the second and fourth Tuesdays of every month at the Iowa City Public Library at 6:30 p.m. I think I remember that.  I think those meetings are open to anybody who wants to come and learn more about whatís going on and learn what they can do to contribute to this effort.

But as I used to say when I was putting together coalitions for media reform decades ago,

"Whatever is your first priority -- whether itís womenís issues, or the environment, or religious concerns, or whatever -- whatever your first priority may be, your second priority has to be media reform."
Because unless you have access to the mass media, unless stations are covering what your organization cares about and what you are doing, unless it is having discussions of these issues, it is very difficult to get the word out when we are living in an information age that is dominated by these massive media conglomerations.  Youíve got to be able to get the word out if you are going to have any impact at all.

With some access to the media, and with some responsibility on the part of the mass media, I think we as the people can solve most of the problems we confront. But if we canít talk with each other, and we canít get access to the information, it is pretty difficult to do that.

GT: Again, 1-866-780-9100 is our toll free number.  There is information on the web through Iowans for Better Local TV about the Sinclair Broadcast Group.  It is one of the largest, most diversified TV broadcasting companies, and it reaches 24% of U.S. television households that includes ABC, NCB, CBS, FOX and other affiliates.  In Iowa, at least three stations belong to that group, KGAN-TV, KFXA, and KDSM. The last two are, if Iím not mistaken,  FOX stations. KGAN happens to be a CBS station.

What do you think, Professor Johnson, is the underlying reason for this phenomenon, what drives this consolidation, conglomeration?

NJ:  You mean, why do the stations want to do it?  They want to do it because they can make more money.

Thereís some desire to have ideological and political control over where our country goes. It is certainly in the interest of any administration to have fewer media owners that they need to deal with. It is said that whoever controls the media in any society controls that society, controls that county. Thatís true in a fascist country, thatís true in a communist country, itís true in a lesser developed country, itís true around the world.  And in this country, the dominant control of the mass media falls into the hands of the Fortune 500, and the large media conglomerates, many of which are in that Fortune 500.

So, itís the corporate advertisers and corporate owners who are, as someone has said, "Even if they donít tell us what to think, they tell us what to think about." Control of the agenda is one of the most powerful political forces you can have.

GT:  Even if they donít have an agenda to change our views, necessarily, on particular matters, by the need to make more money, that drives to this less diversity and consolidation and more uniformity in what we hear and what we see.

But the reason for accountability is that those stations, those corporations, are using something that belongs to the public, or to nobody, the airwaves.  They cannot be exhausted, they cannot be damaged per se, and so they are an eternal resource for revenue. As they say, those stations are making money by the minute. So there has to be some accountability. Isnít that the idea?

NJ:  Thatís the theory. Thatís right.

GT:  We are going to have Professor Johnson back, Nicholas Johnson, former FCC Commissioner and currently a law professor at the University of Iowa College of Law, on one of our future programs. Maybe in a couple of weeks or so. So please prepare your questions then.

But right now we still have a couple of minutes and if you would like to call us, the number is 1-866-780-9100, and talk@uiowa.edu is the email address if you want to drop an email real quickly before the hour runs out.

So, Professor Johnson, you also spoke at St. Louis. What was memorable at that conference?  I know there were some outstanding speeches.

NJ:  Bill Moyers made a very famous speech thatís now gone all around the internet both in audio and in print about the problems at this time with public broadcasting and the role of the corporation for public broadcasting president seemingly, according to Bill Moyers, trying to bring ideology into theÖ.

You are pointing at your screen, which makes me think we either have an email or a call.

GT: We have two calls.

And Bill Moyerís speech is available on the web.  You can email, or check Professor Johnsonís web page.

But, right now here is Jeremy calling from Wesley in the remaining couple of minutes.  Jeremy, hi, you are on Talk of Iowa.

Jeremy: Thanks for taking my call.  My question is that AT&T and federal government required them to be broke down under the antitrust laws. Why aren't the same things being done with the broadcast industry? Like your guest was speaking earlier, that was who controlled the airwaves, so, you know, what the people think about.

NJ: Well, you are absolutely right. I think if you and I were in Congress, weíd be doing that.  And I think we are going to have to do that at some point.

You know, the pendulum swings, and I think itís now swung to the point where most people are able to see what you articulate so well, which is that we do have an abuse here that does need to be rectified. It's not going to be done by these media conglomerates acting on themselves. It is going to require some external force from government, I think. Thatís building up as we get thousands more people showing up at this media conference, and Iowans participating in licensing renewals this year. I think ultimately that Congress will have to respond.

Jeremy: Thanks for taking my call.

GT: Thank you, Jeremy.

And here is another call from Bradley in Des Moines, and Bradley, we have only a minute or so.  Go ahead.

Bradley: Iíll be brief.

Professor Johnson, could you recommend books, some academic level books, that we might read in order to acquaint ourselves with this topic?

NJ:  I have a reference to some books on my web site.  If you go to www.nicholasjohnson.org, in the upper right hand corner of that screen you will see a link to something called "media reform."  Click on that and look around that page and youíll see lots of information about things you can do, including reference to some of the basic books in this area.

Bradley: Thank you very kindly, sir.

Thank you for calling.

GT:  Thanks for calling, Bradley.  Unfortunately, our 20 minutes are up.  Professor Johnson, we will have to have you back in a couple of weeks or so.  Please do call us then, but right now, we have to end our program. Produced by Dennis Reece, with help from Jason Innes. Jim Davies is our chief engineer. Join us next time on Talk of Iowa. I'm Gayane Torosyan.