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 . . . .


  1. Harold,

    Well, you have got me thinking. I don’t understand the rules for local radio.

    Here on Martha’s Vineyard there is one locally-owned radio station (WMVY), with its studios on the Vineyard, that has a local feel to it, even though it has recently added a transmitter in Newport, RI. Its broadcast radius includes our island, Cape Cod, Nantucket, and bits of RI & S.E. Massachusetts. Its local feel has become diluted in recent years–but I think it still broadcasts the Vineyard High School’s football games. But a big part of their push now is on the internet. Because people vacation here from all over the world, they have online listeners from all over the world, and that’s apparent when you listen to the broadcasts.

    There’s a new low-power station here that has the feel of hippy-dippy/college stations. It carries Democracy Now & similar in addition to lots of quirky stuff that tickle the fancy of the jocks, who are all volunteers. It’s great.

    On Cape Cod, there are two stations with a little of a local feel — a talk station that has about 1/2 local & 1/2 nationally syndicated talk shows, and a classical station.

    Everything else on the dial is corporate & bland, including one of those no-jock, all robot stations.

    Stations with local sensibilities ARE vital to maintaining the fabric of the community, and maintaining the fabric of the community IS important. If it were all corporate-national-mush on the radio dial, I don’t know what I would do. But it would diminish my quality of life.

  2. Funny how the FCC respects local broadcasters but seems to be lining up policy after policy, and rule after rule, that makes it impossible to be a local ISP. Which is a shame, because this is a service that is best provided locally.

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