Deal W. Hudson
January 28, 2009
As reported recently in the National Catholic Register, a new version of the so-called Fairness Doctrine is threatening Catholic radio. Under the new Obama administration, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will begin applying “localism” regulations to radio station licenses. Steve Gajdosik, president of the Catholic Radio Association, calls these regulations “the death knell for Catholic radio.”
The Fairness Doctrine regulates the range of opinions that should be heard on a radio station, while localism regulates the service provided to the station’s local community. But the impact of localism could be the same as the Fairness Doctrine since the FCC can take away a station’s license if it’s found not to serve the “interests” of the local community.
President Obama, as a senator, advocated localism in a statement given to the FCC in Chicago. The head of Obama’s transition team, John Podesta, was president of the Center for American Progress, which issued a report on “The Structural Imbalance of Talk Radio,” complaining of “the absence of localism in American radio markets” and urging the FCC to seek “greater local accountability over radio licensing.”
The head of the FCC transition team for Podesta and Obama is another supporter of localism standards: Henry Rivera, former chairman of the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council. The council spells out what is intended by localism:
“Broadcasters must… look for leaders in the civic, religious, and non-profit sectors that regularly serve the needs of the community, particularly the needs of minority groups that are typically poorly served by the broadcasting industry as a whole.”
In other words, the FCC can use the localism standard to determine whether Catholic radio stations or any radio stations are serving the “needs of minority groups” in their communities. (You can bet that Catholics are not one of those minority groups.)
In addition to ideological constraints, localism would affect small stations by requiring the main studios to be located within a broadcaster’s community, to fully staff those studios during hours of operation, to restore community advisory boards, and to establish minimum levels of locally originated programming that responds to community concerns.
The nearly 200 Catholic radio stations around the country neither have the resources to meet these standards nor can they subsume their religious mission to local advisory boards. As Gajdosik puts it, “This gives a local review board oversight to decide whether a station’s content serves the needs and interests of the local population.”
The leading lobbying group for religious broadcasters, the National Association of Religious Broadcasters, has gone on record against “localism mandates, adverse definitions of ‘public interest’ obligation, and media reform rules that could disfavor Christian broadcasters.”
The NRB believes that the Broadcaster Freedom Act, introduced on January 7, will prevent the FCC from determining the content of Christian radio stations. Reps. Mike Pence (R-ID) and Greg Walden (R-OR) are sponsors of the House bill, and Sens. Jim DeMint (R-SC) and John Thune (R-SD) are the Senate sponsors.
Pence told the National Catholic Register that he and his colleagues will continue to push the Broadcaster Freedom Act: “There’s no doubt that if it gets to the floor of the House, it will pass by a wide margin.”
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has taken an in-between position on localism. Jessica Gonzales, an attorney for the Catholic bishops, explained that localism could be used as an incentive for “fast-track renewals” of station licenses. Gonzales said the USCCB is not concerned about the impact of localism “guidelines” on radio content, since “many broadcasters suggest they are already comporting with the guidelines.”
On the other hand, the Catholic Radio Association, which exists independently of the USCCB, is deeply concerned about the impact of localism standards. Last April, CRA filed a 19-page brief with the FCC opposing localism and the problems it creates for smaller stations (and for Catholic radio in particular).
The FCC currently renews radio station licenses every eight years. If, as suggested by Human Events, the FCC decides on an accelerated license review every two years, then during Obama’s first term, every radio license in America can be reviewed twice. Any station that fails to meet localism standards would then be subject to having its license revoked.
We’ll keep you updated as events develop.