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Powell’s thinking locally

FCC chief planning initiatives after harsh criticism

WASHINGTON — After months of weathering intense criticism from Congress and the public, Federal Communications Commission topper Michael Powell tried to do a little political damage control Wednesday.

Powell announced a series of sweeping initiatives aimed at ensuring that radio and TV stations serve the local community where they operate.

Agency will form a task force on promoting localism in broadcasting that will make recommendations to the commission and Congress within a year. The FCC also pledged to speed up licensing of hundreds of low-powered radio stations often run by churches, community groups and schools. “We heard the voice of public concern about the media loud and clear,” Powell said. “Localism is the core of these concerns, and we’re going to tackle it head on.”

A champion of deregulation, Powell led the Republican-dominated FCC’s effort to loosen rules governing TV, radio and newspaper ownership.

The 3-2 party-line decision June 2 would allow individual companies to own TV stations reaching 45% (instead of the previous 35%) of the nation’s viewers and one company to own newspapers and broadcast outlets in the same market.

Critics of the new ownership rules cite a serious lack of local programming and news as one of the main reasons why the regs need to be tightened, not relaxed.

Opponents of every political stripe argue the revamped rules will make it easier for media congloms to grow even bigger, gobbling up more stations and paying far less attention to local programming and local interests in the process.

In the run-up to the June decision,the two Democrats on the commission asked Powell to put off the decision until he had studied the effect the new rules would have on local coverage and local station control over network programming.

But back then Powell brushed aside such concerns as either hyperbole or baseless conjecture, even in the face of millions of letters from the public and written requests from dozens of senators to hold off on new rules until thorough studies could be done.

Since then, the grassroots public outcry gave way to a congressional groundswell to roll back all or part of the new regs. The House last month voted to do so, and the Senate is expected to pass its own rejection of the regs when lawmakers return in September.

More recently, the controversy has led to speculation that Powell would ankle the FCC post, a claim he has repeatedly denied. In the past week, activist, consumer groups and one broadcasting company have called on Powell to put off the decision until Congress can act, but so far he has refused to do so.

Powell responded calmly Wednesday to a barrage of reporters’ questions about the timing and substance of the new initiatives. Denying that the move was too little too late, Powell separated the localism issue from the media rules, arguing that the two have nothing to do with each other.

Not surprisingly, the announcement gave critics another opportunity to take a swipe at Powell.

Democratic FCC Commissioner Michael Copps dismissed the new initiatives as “a day late and a dollar short” and lambasted Powell for trying to divide the issue of localism from the debate over media ownership rules.

“To say that protecting localism was not germane to that decision boggles the mind,” Copps said in a statement. “We should have vetted these issues before we voted.”

The Center for the Creative Community, an advocacy group for entertainment biz writers, directors, producers and performers, also weighed in, labeling the localism study a “tacit admission that its media ownership rulemaking was fatally flawed.”

“Unless the FCC stays the effective date of its new rules until these studies are completed, what the chairman proposes is akin to handing Fox (and the other nets) the key to the media henhouse and then studying how many chickens they eat,” said CCC executive director Jonathan Rintels.