“The idea that there is a ‘public’ that has a prior ownership claim on a spectrum of radio frequencies is a fantasy.”
— Tim Peck, Asheville resident
They came — more than 400 of them, from all over the state and from as far away as Nashville. Citizens of varying colors, ethnicities and political persuasions. Some were defiant, some were imploring. A very few bordered on hostile. But for all their differences, most made the same underlying point: The media landscape is being spoiled by corporations that are gobbling up print and electronic media outlets and by the government bureaucrats and rules that enable this to happen — and the people want their airwaves back.
At a five-hour “Town Meeting on the Future of the Media,” held June 28 at A-B Tech’s Ferguson Auditorium, the issues that took center stage included media conglomerates, public-access TV, poor signal reception, unchecked bias, lack of diversity in viewpoints and content, limited Internet access, unfair FCC rules, and encroachment from big media that hamstring low-powered FM radio stations and other outlets serving the voiceless, such as the poor, minorities and non-English speaking peoples.
Scores showed up to give written and spoken testimony to commissioners Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps of the Federal Communications Commission, as well as to confront representatives of media conglomerates, who each gave short presentations: Virgil Smith, publisher of the Gannett-owned Asheville Citizen-Times, and Ken Salyer, an executive with Clear Channel-Asheville, which controls six local radio stations. Though invited, WLOS-TV — owned by Maryland-based Sinclair Broadcasting, which has stirred controversy for its right-leaning politics — did not send a panelist, but the station covered the event in its news broadcast.
Despite making impassioned arguments and offering examples showing their companies’ ties to local community, Smith and Salyer were repeatedly accused of being big-media heavies and took the brunt of the audience’s ire.
Besides Smith and Salyer, the panel also included Wally Bowen, founder of the Mountain Area Information Network and its low-power FM-radio station, WPVM 103.5, John R. Hayes, founder and president of low-power FM station WRES 100.7, Gustavo Silva, co-founder of Afrotina, an Afican-American-Latino advocacy-group and host of a Latino program on WPVM, David McConville, founder of The Media Arts Project, and Jim Goodmon, head of the family-owned Capitol Broadcasting Company, which owns WRAL-TV in Raleigh and seven other broadcast outlets in the state.
Goodmon, a champion of localism who has been deemed a rabble rouser for his fierce resistance to unfettered media concentration, told the crowd, “Guys, there’s a big fight ahead. The big guys want to own all that they can own — it’s as simple as that.”
Giving the FCC an earful
Following the short panel presentations, 72 people rose to speak directly to Adelstein and Copps, whom several speakers praised for having the decency and conviction to show up. The remaining three FCC commissioners, including North Carolina native and FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, did not attend, despite being invited, organizers said. Nonetheless, the public’s testimony will be forwarded to those commissioners, as well as to North Carolina’s congressional delegation.
Though there were some catcalls and the occasional spittle flung, no blood was spilled during the meeting. It was hosted by several area organizations and sponsored by the Massachusetts-based Free Press, which bills itself as a “national nonpartisan organization working to increase informed public participation in crucial media policy debates.”
Anyone who signed up could offer testimony; all speakers were limited to two minutes but were offered the option of submitting a longer statement for the record. A majority of the people who testified — many of whom said they work in one or another form of media — let it be known they were angered with the state of the media, not only locally but nationally. One woman who traveled from Chapel Hill, doing her best Howard Beale impersonation from the 1976 movie Network, summed up a popular sentiment: “My message is, I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!”
But another speaker, Tim Peck of Asheville, had a different message for the commissioners and the assembled throng, many of whom urged the FCC to take seriously the concept that the airwaves belong to the public.
“First, there is no such entity as ‘the public’ that has a right to make legal claims,” said Peck, who would end his testimony by calling for the abolishment of the FCC. “Only individuals have rights. The idea that there is a ‘public’ that has a prior ownership claim on a spectrum of radio frequencies is a fantasy. I’d like to see that entity: the public. I’d like to look ‘the public’ in the eye. I’d like shake its hand and to ask ‘the public’ to take hold of a pen and sign a contract agreeing not to violate my rights — including my right to own media properties.”
To the chorus of people imploring the FCC to restore the airwaves to the public, Don Yelton of Asheville, who has his own public affairs and talk show on a local cable station, said: “If you want a TV show, do what I’ve done for the past six years and pay for it yourself!”
Many speakers decried corporate, out-of-state ownership as a threat to local control of, and access to, the radio airwaves, with broadcast conglomerate Clear Channel Commications being mentioned repeatedly. When he got his two minutes behind the microphone, Matt Mittan, host of a popular radio talk show on Clear Channel-owned WWNC 570 AM, offered a rebuttal of sorts. “There’s been a lot of soap-boxing tonight … but a lot of the people here have been on my show.” Furthermore, he said, “Clear Channel has never told me what to say.”
But out-of-town, corporate ownership is a problem that the public ignores at its own peril, argued Amanda Rodriguez, a representative of the Mountain Area Information Network. “What we are faced with is an epidemic,” she said of media consolidation, “that is affecting all but the rich and powerful.”
The meeting, one of several that Free Press is hosting around the country, had additional import, as it comes when the FCC is preparing to again review media-ownership rules that might allow large media conglomerates to buy and control even more outlets. Adelstein and Copps, the only Democrats on the Republican-dominated FCC, were the lone dissenting votes in 2003 when the FCC voted to loosen ownership rules — rules that were later rejected by the courts.
Free Press executive director Josh Silver said it was important that people stand up on these and other related issues, as three million of them did in 2003 about the changing ownership rules, and let their voices be heard so that media diversity and democracy can be maintained and restored. “For too long media policy has been made in your name, but without your informed consent,” he said.