Archive | February, 2004

FCC Tries Civil Suit To Shut Down Radio Free Brattleboro

In an interesting turn of events, the U.S. Attorney for Vermont and the FCC seem to be trying to avoid bringing jackbooted federal marshals into downtown Brattleboro to shut down that city’s unlicensed community station. Instead, they have filed a civil suit against Radio Free Brattleboro and its co-founder.

This comes a month after RFB received a letter from the U.S. Attorney warning them of imminent FCC action, giving them a last chance to go off the air to avoid it. But RFB is an extremely popular station in Brattleboro, which otherwise has no community radio station, with thousands of petition signatures to prove it.

In the civil suit, the FCC is asking the federal District Court to take RFB off the air, but that does not necessarily result in any immediate action against the station. In response RFB has filed a counter-suit, arguing that:

“[RFB] will suffer ongoing irreparable injury due to the FCCÂ’s abuse of discretion and its arbitrary and capricious actions in failing to provide the 10-watt LPFM power classification with licensing procedures and licenses. …

Moreover, and in addition to abusing its discretion to regulate, the FCC failure to provide licensing is an abridgement of the plaintiffsÂ’ First Amendment rights to engage in speech activity that is protected by the First Amendment.

It’s an argument similar to the one used by Free Radio Berkeley in its legal fight against the FCC. And, so, it’s important to note that FRB lost its case due to what amounts to a technicality — Judge Wilkin of the 9th Circuit Court decided that FRB had no standing in its challenge to the FCC because they had never applied for a license, and thus never been denied one.

It would seem that the good will RFB has built up in its local community combined with the relatively more neighborly nature of a small state like Vermont have helped RFB stave off a more agressive FCC action. By comparison, San Franciso Liberation Radio enjoyed a similar kind of community support, including a resolution of support from the City Council that even implored local police not to cooperate with the FCC. Nevertheless, that unlicensed station met with an armed police raid back in October.

Right now Radio Free Brattleboro is anxiously awaiting the town’s Meeting Day on March 3, during which elections are held. On the ballot there is a non-binding resolution that asks “the voters of Brattleboro give to radio free brattleboro (rfb) authority to broadcast.”

During an interview that aired on the Jan. 23 edition of the radioshow, RFB volunteer Sara Longsmith said that the station would comply with any court order to shut down the station, but otherwise would stay on the air. So, for the moment at least, it looks like the station could still be on the air to cover their ballot initiative.

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Broadcast Indecency Enforcement Is Just a Symptom of Bigger Cancer

In a Reason magazine article, Jesse Walker identifies the reason why I’m always uncomfortable with the FCC’s anti-indecency efforts:

“You needn’t like Clear Channel to recognize that an FCC which revokes licenses and imposes draconian fines isn’t going to refrain from penalizing college stations and low-power broadcasters. “

Indeed, as I’ve noted before, this is very true, and has happened before, especially to Pacifica during the 50s and 60s.

However, by simply focusing on the free speech angle you loose the fact that the ability for the FCC to police the airwaves is based upon a system of licensed oligopoly. The FCC’s police power is specifically justified as an escape valve for the fact that the airwaves have been allocated as an extremely limited resource, where not everyone who wants a station is able to own one, even if she has enough money to buy a good transmitter and studio, and hire an enormous full-time staff.

This justification is explicit in Supreme Court precedent, FCC v. Pacifica.

By comparison, there is no equivalent policing agency for the press or any other printed speech. Aside from the occasional publicity-hound DA who wants to pursue an obscenity case, any person with access to a printing press, photocopier, typewriter or pen and paper can distribute whatever form of “indecent” matter she wants, with little fear of fines or prosecution.

Why? Because there is no “scarcity” argument. The government is not in a position dole out licenses for printers to act in the public trust. If you can buy a printer or press, you can use it, no permission necessary.

So, the root problem is not the FCC’s ability to police indecency and its current zeal to do so. No, the problem is the licensing system itself, that selects licensees, and then gives them a monopoly license for a broadcast frequency worth millions in return for almost nothing, except a few promises.

Combined with a nearly-complete watering down of any public obligation or ownership restriction, the US system of broadcast spectrum allocation and licensing is singularly responsible for the near-monopolies of Clear Channel and Infinity/Viacom. The extent to which these corporate pirates flagrantly violate the rules that they agree to obey as corollaries of their licenses is a direct outcome of the massive economic power they have amassed for fractions of cents on the dollar, thanks to the FCC.

Quite unfortunately, indecency enforcement is one of the last legal methods for getting at the likes of Clear Channel for their obscene violation of all standards of public trust and responsible broadcasting. The simple reason for this is that all other checks and balances in the system have been evicerated.

Yes, from a principled standpoint the daytime ban on indecency is wrong. But so is the enforced scarcity of broadcast licenses and the FCC’s and Congress’s refusal to open up the airwaves to more broadcast stations of all types, low power or high power.

The system of broadcast allocation and regulation is fundamentally flawed, unprincipled, inconsistent, and even corrupt. I’d argue there is no principled way to work within such a system to repair it or make it more just.

So, if indecency is the stick with which we can beat Clear Channel, so be it.

Finally, while I am no fan of indecency policing, I do have to point out that so-called “indecency” is permitted on the US airwaves during the free-harbor period of 10 PM to 6 AM. The free-harbor period has been upheld repeatedly by the DC Circuit Court of Appeals in the face of FCC and Congressional attempts to either kill it off entirely or reduce it so substantially as to make it useless. The currently prevailing case law results from Action for Children’s Television v. FCC, 1995.

Thus, the FCC cannot legally fine any broadcaster, TV or radio, for airing Janet Jackson’s breast, Bubba the Love Sponge’s dick jokes, or uncensored rap songs after 10 PM. That’s why NBC hasn’t been fined for Saturday Night Live, no matter how much they push the limits and how many viewer complaints get filed.

It’s a compromise, for sure, but as a broadcaster myself, it’s one I’m willing to accept, since I feel lucky to even have access to a broadcast station.

I shouldn’t have to feel lucky, but that’s the fundamental problem. Indecency enforcement is just a symptom.

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Visit to Free Speech TV

I’ve been in the Denver, Colorado area since Sunday, and had the opportunity to make a trip to Boulder yesterday, which is the home of Free Speech TV.

FSTV is the first and only nationwide progressive satellite TV channel, airing on Dish Network, with some programming picked up and rebroadcast on public access TV channels all over the place.

FSTV’s program director, Eric Galatas, was kind enough to take some time to meet with me, show me around their offices and do a short interview that will air on next week’s mediageek radioshow. Eric is an independent video veteran, producing a radical magazine program on Seattle public access during the mid-90s, and was part of the collective that assembled the first Independent Media Center in Seattle for the 1999 WTO ministerial meetings.

The FSTV offices are located in an unassuming little office building on Boulder’s East side, and the only hint that something more radical is going on is when you walk in the door and start noticing bikes parked in the hall and political posters along the stairwell leading to their suite.

They uplink the programs to Dish by converting everything to MPEG2 format — used in DVDs and direct-broadcast satellite TV (DBS) — and essentially queing it to a server, which then sends it via fiber to an uplink facility in Cheyanne Wyoming. It’s a pretty interesting and simple setup that is quite different from the usual broadcast model that uses a human operator who has to do all the queueing and switching in real-time (though much of it is automated now).

I found out that FSTV only has the money to purchase about 160 hours of programming a year. The rest of the programming has to be acquired for free from all sorts of independent producers looking to get their work seen. That means a lot of effort is spent going to film festivals and reviewing tapes to find good stuff that meets FSTV’s progressive mission.

FSTV also produces a small amount of programming, such as coverage of activities surrounding the 2000 Democratic and Republican national conventions. They also broadcast a video version of the popular daily progressive radio news program Democracy Now.

FSTV was one of the main reasons why I subscribed to Dish Network, after never before subscribing to any kind of cable or satellite TV. Although it’s a traditional non-profit corporation, with a traditional hierarchical management structure, Eric told me that he tries to run the programming department as collectively as possible. His department provides some valuable support to the US Indymedia Newsreal, in the form of some staff time, access to facilities and, importantly, broadcast airtime.

A 24-hour full-time progressive TV network capable of reaching the entire country is a valuable thing, indeed. It’s evidence that there are occasional chinks in the corporate media armor, and they need to be exploited for all they’re worth.

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Louisiana’s Corporate Whore To Leave Committee & Congress

Republican Rep. Bill Tauzin of Louisiana is set to step down from his chairship of the House Engergy and Commerce Committee, which oversees telecommunications issues and the FCC, on Feb. 16, and leave the House altogether at the end of his term.

Tauzin was a tireless friend to the corporate media and the entertainment cartel, with such efforts as leading the good fight against evil technologies like low-power FM radio.

A testament to his whoring prowess is found in the jobs lined up for him as soon as he quits Congress. He’s already turned down succeeding Jack Valenti as head of the Motion Picture Association of America, but looks to have lined up a sweet gig as head of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), the trade group that represents drug giants such as Pfizer Inc. and Merck & Co. It pays to scratch a LOT of backs!

Whether it’s Television, Drug of a Nation, or the Prozac Nation, Tauzin has been and will continue to be there to keep us doped up, stupid and hemmed in from all sides.

Rep. Joe Barton is the man most likely to replace Tauzin as chair of the Engery and Commerce Committee, and it seems like he gets a fair amount of his bread buttered by telecomm and media industry (though not as much as from the auto and energy industries, bein’ that he’s from Texas). According to, amongst Barton’s biggest campaign contributors in the 2002 election were:

National Cable & Telecommunications Assn, $11,851
General Electric, $6,000
BellSouth Corp, $5,000
Viacom Inc, $3,000
National Assn of Broadcasters, $2,500
Motion Picture Assn of America, $1,000

Looks like ol’ Joe is going to be able to raise his prices substantially if he gets that chairship.

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Ben Bagdikian Updates His Classic Analysis of Media Monopoly

Editor and Publisher has a quick note that a new edition of The Media Monopoly will be out in May, containing seven new chapters.

Bagdikian has updated the book regularly since first publishing it in 1983. The saddest part of this process has been that in every update the list of media conglomerates shrinks ever smaller:

” Since then, according to a Beacon press release, the number of corporations controlling most of the country’s newspapers, magazines, radio and TV stations, book publishers and movie companies has shrunk from 50 to 10 to 5.”

The Media Monopoly is the best place to start if you want to learn more about how the corporate media conglomerates operate and control nearly every form and facet of the global media, from print publishing and music to film and television. Bagdikian’s analysis is clear and logical, and his research is top-notch.

I am very curious to see what is new in the forthcoming edition, and if it will be time to update my copy.

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