For the first 20 years of my career I was a radio broadcaster in Greenville, Wilson, Elizabeth City, Fuquay-Varina, and later Raleigh and Durham. At these stations, employees often performed multiple tasks and, while we never made a lot of money, the work was rewarding because we believed we performed a valuable public service to our community.
The media landscape was simple. We received four TV stations (the three networks and PBS), generally two or more AM radio stations and the local newspaper, most owned and managed by local people. Everyone had a place at the table and we each knew and accepted our roles. The Federal Communications Commission regulated broadcasters, especially through ownership rules that ensured no group dominated the options the public could choose in media voices. While some considered the rules restrictive, I agreed with not giving too much control to too few.
Things began changing in 1980, when Ted Turner started CNN and cable TV became a viable option for subscribers. UHF stations (those above channel 13) popped up everywhere. President Reagan deregulated broadcasting, among other industries, and suddenly ownership groups could buy large numbers of radio stations. President Bush later did the same for TV, even though there were restrictions as to how large a percentage of the national audience an ownership group could reach.
We witnessed a spending spree of large corporations merging or purchasing radio and TV stations and newspapers. Advocates claimed that changing economic factors dictated the need to achieve economies of scale through owning multiple properties in the area.
While most agree that competition and the free market is good, many began questioning whether bigger was really better. Suddenly programming, news content and public service decisions, previously determined by local owners and managers based on what was best for their community, were now being made by corporate executives in far away cities. Just recently the FCC ruled that these groups didn’t even have to have their main studios in the communities to which they were licensed. Many radio stations have become little more than automated jukeboxes or satellite-delivered talk programming and you are hard-pressed to find local news on some group-owned TV stations, unless they rebroadcast newscasts from other stations in the market.
Now the FCC is considering eliminating essentially all ownership rules for TV and radio broadcasting, including the cross-ownership of newspapers. It is not far-fetched to envision a time when a handful of large corporations control what we are able to see, hear or read. Not only will we have the loss of local input but will get the political or philosophical slant from large corporations.
You may think this is free enterprise at work and we should not interfere with the flow of commerce. Maybe so, but I challenge you to tune in your local TV or radio station or pick up your local paper and make the case that each is doing as good a job of serving their community as the previous local ownership was doing.
Count me as one who believes that our country benefits when the press and media offer many opinions and we can select the ones we prefer rather than be forced to choose between only a few.
We need more media voices, not fewer.
Tom Campbell is former assistant North Carolina State Treasurer and is creator/host of NC SPIN, a weekly statewide television discussion of NC issues. Contact him at www.ncspin.com.