FCC lifts media ownership ban

n Local radio, TV stations at risk

Voting along political lines, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decided 3-2 June 2 to relax media ownership rules that have been in effect for decades. The ruling could mean the owners of the Rockford Register Star, Gannett Co. Inc., or other conglomerates may buy more local newspapers, radio and television stations.

The ruling is widely viewed by opponents as further erosion of local reporting, concentration of ownership, loss of jobs and less diverse news coverage and editorials. U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., heads the Senate Commerce Committee that will consider legislation this month to undo the FCC’s ruling.

Opponents also pointed out that major media conglomerates extensively lobbied FCC officials, who review market rules every two years under provisions of the 1997 Federal Communications Act.

Groups as far apart as the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition and the National Rifle Association oppose the FCC rulings, and have called on both parties in Congress to reverse the ruling.

Proponents argue that local coverage will not suffer, and they assert greater resources will be available for news in each market.

Rich Carter, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Don Manzullo, R-16 said: “We will be interested to see what proposals surface in the House. Until that time, we don’t want to take a position on the ruling.”

If unchallenged, the ruling will lift the ban on owning newspapers, radio and TV stations in the same market–known as cross-ownership.

The Rockford area ranks 135 out of 210 in size for U.S. television markets, according to Nielsen media research. Arbitron ranks the area 153 out of 287 for radio markets.

In the largest media markets, the ruling allows a single company to own up to three TV and eight radio stations, a cable TV system and a daily newspaper.

Linda Grist Cunningham, executive editor of the Rockford Register Star, said she was “not privy to plans” Gannett may have to again buy other Rockford media outlets. However, Cunningham suggested that Register Star executives may participate in the decision-making regarding which, if any, local media to purchase, if the FCC rule changes are left standing. Cunningham referred other questions to the Register Star’s June 2 editorial endorsing the FCC changes.

In the early 1960s, Fred Speer worked for WROK radio, and Phil Pash and Joe Baker for the Rockford Register Republic. Baker and Pash now write for The Rock River Times and Speer works for The Rockford Labor News.

At that time, Speer, Pash and Baker worked out of the same building at 99 East State St., which now houses the Rockford Register Star. According to Pash, Baker and Speer, the E. Kenneth Todd family owned both newspapers, WROK and WREX-TV. The Todds sold the newspapers and WREX to Gannett, which in the 1960s was pressured by the U.S. Department of Justice to sell either the newspapers or WREX, according to the Rockford Register Star.

Gannett chose to sell WREX and keep the newspapers. It is believed the Todd family was exempt from the FCC rules banning such media ownership because their interests predated the rules, similar to the Tribune Co. holdings in Chicago.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported June 3 that the Tribune Co. and Gannett “were among the major newspaper-owning companies that wanted the ban [restricting media ownership] lifted.” According to the June 2 Register Star editorial, Gannett is “the largest media company in the nation, with 100 newspapers and 22 television stations.” The Tribune Co. owns Chicago media outlets WGN-TV, WGN-AM, CLTV and Chicago Tribune, which are exempt from the FCC rules because its media ownership predated the ban. Like the Register Star, the Tribune also endorsed the rule changes June 2.

Gwen Kinsey, general manager of WTVO-17, which is owned by Younge Broadcasting, said the FCC ruling further shifts power

to large networks at the expense of local affiliates. Kinsey said the FCC is supposed to be the steward to sort through the complexities of media ownership to ensure that diversity is maintained. However, Kinsey isn’t sure the FCC achieved that goal by allowing more cross ownership.

Kinsey said one of the biggest problems with cross ownership is the clash between print and broadcast cultures. Kinsey explained the way print and broadcast media report a story are different enough that she’s not convinced of the value of such mergers, from a journalistic standpoint—a claim the Register Star uses in their editorial.

The Register Star wrote, “Cross ownership can be the mechanism that strengthens often-weaker TV newsrooms as they share resources of sister newspapers.”

The June 3 Sun-Times article reads: “Steve Scott, president of the Illinois News Broadcasters Association, said the change will result in loss of jobs. ‘This will mean the elimination of local news people, who will be replaced by piped in, out-of-town announcers.’” Kinsey also said the ruling may mean a loss of jobs.

Speer worked at WROK radio covering breaking news for 44 years, before retiring at the end of last year. Speer said he would not have retired if it hadn’t been for the new owner’s emphasis on maximizing profits at the expense of local news coverage.

The station’s new owner, Cumulus Broadcasting, Inc., reaches 7.8 million listeners per week, according to Columbia Journalism Review. However, Cumulus ranks 10th largest in U.S. radio, far behind Clear Channel’s 104.8 million listeners per week.

However, according to Cumulus’ Web site last December, the conglomerate claims to be “the second largest radio broadcasting company in the United States based upon number of stations owned or operated.” The site also describes the corporation’s desire “to maximize the advertising revenues and broadcast cash flow of our stations.”

The site indicated that this desire has been afforded to them due to “the relaxation of radio station ownership limits under the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and the FCC rules.” Greg Sher, general manager for WROK, said he had “No comment until I get more details” about the further relaxation of rules.

Speer is concerned that if the FCC ruling stands, democracy could further be endangered. “The conglomerates are getting the green light to expand what they already have…Now, you have government controlling news through the influence of political donations.” Speer added that he would have been surprised if the Register Star had opposed lifting the ban on cross ownership.

Joel Cowan, demographics researcher for the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine in Rockford, said he had concerns similar to Speer’s. Cowan said, “I’m concerned about a few firms controlling the news and less opportunities for diverse views.”

The Chicago Tribune’s editorial advocated total elimination of governmental regulations concerning “when and why one media organization may buy another… .” The Tribune continued, “The notion that the government should control the breadth and volume of speech is offensive to the 1st Amendment.”

However, Jon Bystrom, a staff member of The Rock River Times, said on WNTA radio’s Chris Bowman Show that the major premise the U.S. used to justify fighting the Cold War against communism was to prevent power from becoming centralized into the hands of a few tyrannical government leaders. Bystrom said, “Under these new rules, the press will become dominated by a select few preferred news sources or a single entity reminiscent of Pravda,”—in this case, corporations rather than government.

Tribune writers argue antitrust laws are sufficient to protect from a lack of diversity and dominance by corporations. They conclude, “…the nation’s founders had no idea how varied and extensive the media choices would be for Americans in the 21st century. All they knew for a certainty is that government should stay out of it.”

The Register Star echoed the Tribune’s sentiment by writing, “Technological advances, from cable and broadband to the Internet, ensure that Americans have choices in the news and information.”

However, National Public Radio’s Market Place reported June 2 that some of the same media corporations that advocated lifting the FCC ban already control cable TV systems and are now gunning to control the “gateway to the Internet.” Kinsey added, “The Internet does not address enough local issues.”

Bob Ray, an owner of locally-owned and operated Radio Works, which runs WNTA AM, WXRX FM, Y-95 FM and B-103 FM, did not return telephone calls.

To voice your support or opposition to the FCC rule changes, contact:

Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R-Ill.); 555 Dirksen Building; Washington, D.C. 20510; (202)


Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.); 332 Dirksen Building; Washington, D.C. 20510; (202) 224-2152

Rep. Don Manzullo (R-16); 409 Cannon Building; Washington, D.C. 20510; (202) 225-5676

To see companies that met with FCC officials, visit: http://www.publicintegrity.org.

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