Kennard, the Public & the FCC
by Robert McChesney
The Nation magazine, May 14, 2001
William Kennard, until January the chairman of the Federal
Communications Commission, says that for most members of Congress,
the FCC is seen as "this little honey pot" whose decisions
they can influence to the benefit of their corporate friends.
"The power to grant or deny licenses is the power to make
people incredibly wealthy very quickly," says Kennard, who
served three years as FCC chairman after three years as the commission's
general counsel. He says he came to the job "feeling very
strongly that the agency had become the captive of corporate interests
and was really not connecting to its core mission" of protecting
the public interest in communications. He soon learned firsthand
that this might have been an optimistic appraisal.
Kennard's inability to advance even a very modest public service
agenda is a good indication of the corruption of communications
policy-making today. And indications are that matters will only
get worse under the Bush Administration. Bush's choice to replace
Kennard, Michael Powell, is an enthusiastic advocate of assisting
the largest communications firms to get bigger without any strings
attached. When Bush completes his overhaul of the five-person
FCC (he's just nominated three new members), expect the commission
to resume its traditional role of being, along with the Pentagon,
Washington's largest corporate welfare office.
On April 19 the FCC relaxed its restriction against one company
owning multiple television networks, meaning that Viacom, which
bought CBS last year, can hold on to the UPN network. In the near
term, expect to see the FCC remove the prohibition on firms owning
TV stations and daily newspapers in the same community. Look also
for the FCC to increase the percentage of the nation's markets
in which a firm can own TV stations, currently 35 percent, or
perhaps to remove all limits, as was done with radio in 1996.
Down the road, virtually all the restrictions on cross-ownership
among cable companies, TV stations, TV networks and other media
and communications firms will be relaxed, if not eliminated. By
all accounts, this will lead to a massive wave of mergers and
ever more consolidation of media ownership.
In a recent long interview, Kennard voiced concerns about
increasing consolidation in the media industry. Nevertheless,
he is no radical. He speaks approvingly of the 1996 Telecommunications
Act, which many regard as written by and for communications corporations,
and he is a strong proponent of privatization of communications
worldwide. Nor is Kennard especially critical of commercial media
per se. The main disagreement between Kennard and Powell-and the
main struggle that occupies the FCC-is the core issue of how quickly
markets should be deregulated. Kennard believes that the huge
communications firms should not be deregulated until they face
competition in their own industries; Powell, on the other hand,
says that day will never come, so deregulate now and let the chips
fall where they may.
Had Kennard's record been limited to disputes of this nature,
his reign would have been forgettable. Instead, he highlighted
a handful of public interest issues. "These broadcast licenses
are not widgets. They impact the way people think, the way our
children learn, the way people get information about politics
in the public process, and I've always believed that it's vitally
important that there be a multiplicity of outlets for expression,"
From his first day on the job, Kennard was alarmed by the
rapidly escalating cost of political campaigns, driven by the
massive sums required to pay for TV political advertising. He
hoped that the Gore Commission, whose mandate was to determine
the public service obligations of commercial broadcasters in exchange
for receiving free digital broadcasting spectrum in the 1996 bill,
would propose free air-time for candidates. But, said Kennard,
at the end of the day "the broadcast industry was fundamentally
unwilling to accept any requirements that they broadcast more
public interest programming." Kennard understood the core
problem. "The Gore Commission report came after the spectrum
had been given away. And so the leverage was lost."
Kennard persisted in his efforts, but since this was not a
topic that had a corporate lobby ready to benefit, it raised the
degree of difficulty exponentially. As he recalls, before he took
office a former FCC chair pulled him aside and said, "'Bill,
you've got to realize that when you are FCC chairman, you're basically
a referee of big-money fights, and they're fights between the
rich, on the one hand' and the very wealthy, on the other. The
key to being a successful chairman is to keep the power in equilibrium.
So if you give something to one powerful lobby one week, you better
balance it out by giving their opponents something the next week."'
Success with the free-air-time initiative would require going
off the beaten path. "In order to do things that are in the
public interest, where you have no powerful lobby behind you,
the only way that you can garner support for it is to reach outside
Washington, get outside the Beltway and build coalitions with
people who will speak to their legislatures at the grassroots,"
Kennard said. He knew the idea was popular across the C' nation.
"I'd go out to talk to groups, grassroots groups, and I'd
say, "Well, what about breaking some of this dependency of
politicians on money by requiring broadcasters to give away some
of their time for free?' and people would say, 'Yeah, that's a
great idea." 'Not so, however, in Washington. "You say
the same thing at a cocktail party in Washington and people would
look at you like you were crazy."
The core problem was that the commercial broadcasters' lobby,
the National Association of Broadcasters, was resolutely opposed
to the idea, and many members of Congress informed Kennard in
no uncertain terms to back off. "When I first started talking
to people about free air-time for political candidates, some of
my oldest and closest friends in Washington took me to breakfast,
and they said, 'Bill, don't do this, it's political suicide, you
know. You're just going to kill yourself."' In the end' Kennard
abandoned his campaign for free air-time.
A similar response greeted Kennard when he suggested that
the ownership deregulation for radio stations authorized by the
1996 law had been counterproductive-it was supposed to increase
competition and improve quality-and that something needed to be
done to rectify the situation. Prior to 1996, firms were limited
to owning twenty-eight stations total and no more than four in
a market. (And that was after the Reagan deregulation, which basically
doubled the legal totals for radio-station ownership.) After 1996
the cap was eliminated for the national total, and a firm could
own up to eight in the largest markets. As a result, radio was
transformed almost overnight-over one-half of US commercial radio
stations have been sold in the past five years-into a highly concentrated
market in which a handful of firms own hundreds of stations and
nearly every market is dominated by two or three firms maxed out
with six to eight stations each. It gave these new superpowers
the ability to generate superprofits by providing standardized
fare, de-emphasizing more costly local and original shows, and
turning radio programming into a vast infomercial. It produced
ecstasy on Wall Street, but hangovers everywhere else.
This led to Kennard's most innovative policy proposal, and
the measure that even in tatters marks his legacy: Low Power FM
Radio (LPFM), also known as microradio. LPFM vaulted into prominence
in the 1 990s as an unlicensed 'pirate" service whereby folks
could use transmitters costing a few hundred dollars at most to
send a signal that might reach up to half of a major city. Microbroadcasters
used the open slots on the FM dial, of which there were many.
As FCC general counsel, and later as chairman, Kennard was commissioned
to stop microbroadcasters, since they were unlicensed. But he
could see that this was a technology that had gone far beyond
the existing laws, and the rapid emergence of hundreds of microbroadcasters
underlined that it was a phenomenon that was only going to continue
to grow, legal or not.
If microradio was unpopular inside the Beltway and among the
moneyed interests, it was embraced by just about everyone else
familiar with it. "I kept hearing, particularly from church
groups and local public service organizations, that the commercial
broadcasters weren't carrying their [public service announcements]
anymore, so they had no access to the airwaves.
They couldn't afford to buy stations because the stations
were just priced out of their range. And that radio had basically
been really important to them as a way of communicating with their
constituencies but they couldn't access it anymore."
By early 2000, after a year of study and deliberation, Kennard
and the FCC came up with a plan for up to 1,000 microbroadcasters
nationwide. They were to be nonprofit and noncommercial, "so
they would be somewhat immune from the _ profit pressures of the
commercial broadcasters." Kennard's plan also rejected the
auctioning of microradio licenses to the highest bidder, "because
we knew if we auctioned them off, even if they were noncommercial
reserved, then they would go to the well-heeled noncommercial
interests, you know, churches that can raise a lot of money, or
nationally based organizations."
The commercial broadcasters opposed microradio. That these
stations were to be noncommercial provided little solace; they
might still take away listeners or force the radio empires to
run fewer ads or spend more on local programming. So after the
FCC announced its plan, the NAB spent the balance of 2000 working
to get Congress to scuttle it. But the pro-LPFM forces had developed
a strong grassroots lobbying organization over the years, and
it swung into action. Kennard worked with them to generate support.
"We had the AFL-CIO and the Leadership Conference on Civil
Rights; all the major church groups supported it."
The NAB argued that LPFM was a poorly conceived plan that
would produce widespread interference with existing radio signals,
which Kennard called a "smokescreen," noting that the
FCC plan for the spacing of stations had been recommended by the
commercial broadcasters themselves a decade earlier to accommodate
the needs of commercial stations. The NAB succeeded in getting
the House to effectively overturn the LPFM measure by watering
it down so only a fraction of the microstations authorized by
the FCC could get on the air. The Senate was less willing to comply
with the NAB, and several senators worked to protect Kennard's
A surprise entrant into the fray helped tip the balance to
the commercial broadcasters: National Public Radio. Kennard recalled
that "they were up on Capitol Hill incessantly trying to
kill it. And it really hurt with Democratic lawmakers." Kennard
believes that NPR acted as it did to curry favor with the NAB
for its upcoming budget battles, and to maintain domination over
noncommercial radio broadcasting. "I think it's a real black
mark on NPR's record."
It would be difficult to imagine a more corrupt ending for
the FCC's LPFM plan than what transpired in the Senate in late
December, when the House's anti-LPFM bill was attached to an appropriations
bill the President could not veto, as it included several measures
he had fought hard to have included in the budget. "There
were no hearings," Kennard said. "It was done in the
appropriations process at a time when all the special interests
know that their power is greatly enhanced because it is all done
in the dark of night.... You know, you wake up the next day and
legislation is written. The people who had the most to say about
it are completely cut out of the process. If I sound bitter, I
Shortly afterward, Kennard resigned so President Bush could
fill his job. The promotion of Michael Powell, who had opposed
the LPFM plan, was met with euphoria by the NAB and the other
corporate lobbyists. Subsequently, Powell announced his support
for relaxing or eliminating nearly all the remaining ownership
restrictions on broadcasters and cable companies, which could
prompt a wave of consolidation that would dwarf the record-setting
pace of the past five years.
Kennard said progressives should pay close attention to the
FCC, because "even though it is almost an invisible government
agency, it plays a vitally important role in how people live their
day-to-day lives and how our democracy functions." But the
lessons from his experience are clear: Breaking the corporate
grip over communications in this nation will require grassroots
organization and popular mobilization.
Robert W. McChesney, professor of communication at the University
of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is the author of Rich Media,
Poor Democracy (New Press) and, with John Nichols, It's the Media,
Stupid (Seven Stories).
and Media Control
Control and Propaganda