The FCC’s media ownership rules have never resulted in commercial programming that fully reflects local communities. Local newscasts make up only a small portion of local radio and television broadcast schedules. The vast majority of other programming is national, network programming and syndicated shows. While radio stations have more of a “local feel” than television, their most popular news programming is often syndicated, and music formats are programmed based on national record sales.
Public media is critical to filling the void left by commercial broadcasters. But several structural changes have threatened the ability of public media to thrive and provide local content.
Newark’s WBGO 88.3FM “Jazz 88” is a prime example of both public media done well and what we stand to lose if public broadcasting is not preserved.
Founded in 1979, WBGO was New Jersey’s first public radio station. While WBGO is based in the predominantly African American city of Newark, it can be heard in all five New York City boroughs, north of the city in Rockland and Westchester Counties, Long Island, and parts of Connecticut. The station now streams its broadcast and boasts membership from listeners around the world. Despite its far flung reach, WBGO has never lost sight of its mission to provide programming for the City of Newark.
But WBGO has moved its antennae transmitter to Manhattan. Some are worried the move will result in less Newark-specific programming. This is not inconceivable. The precipitous decline in the mainstream popularity in jazz (see the latest Recording Industry Association of America data here) could pressure WBGO to offset listener attrition by increasing its New York-specific content. But this hasn’t happened — yet.
New Jersey has decided to exit the public broadcasting business altogether. Earlier this year, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie signed off on a deal to transfer the operations of the New Jersey Public Television Network to New York’s WNET. New York Public Radio has also acquired four of New Jersey’s state-owned radio licenses. Philadelphia’s WHYY has acquired another five of New Jersey’s radio licenses. Some advocates have fought to ensure the new owners will continue to program these properties with local, New Jersey content. WNET is contractually required to program NJN with New Jersey-based content.
But the term of the deal is only five years. What happens after those five years have expired is anyone’s guess, and the fates of radio properties now owned by entities in New York and Philadelphia remains up in the air.
Congress has also sought to end public broadcasting. Earlier this year, Republicans pushed two bills to defund National Public Radio (NPR) and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). After significant public outcry, the bills failed, but the effort brought public broadcasting to a precipice, and there is no reason to conclude that Congress will pass up the next opportunity to defund public broadcasting.
The incentives for public media and those of commercial media are quite different. Media companies must program their stations in a way that ‘generates’ profits, not in light of the amount of concentration and consolidation many wish for, but in light of what the climate actually is. And with advertising dollars moving farther away from traditional, broadcast-only media outlets, especially radio, and toward multi-platform brands that engage across different types of media, we can expect less localism from the private sector–not more.
Public broadcasting doesn’t have those same kinds of constraints because their mandate is to fill the void left by commercial media in exchange for tax incentives.
Currently, people have few choices but to consume mass appeal content. Corporate decision makers believe that what makes mass appeal content so attractive and profitable is that the greater number of platforms for-profit companies are engaged with, the more difficult it becomes to maintain a consistent brand identity. So mass appeal formatting is sort of a no-brainer—it is easy to produce and control. Reinforcing this is the fact that our public institutions–courts–have deemed mass-appeal approaches to be most consistent with what the Founder’s envisioned.
In Lutheran Church Missouri-Synod v. FCC, Judge Silberman, writing for the DC Circuit Court of Appeals, struck down the FCC’s Equal Employment Opportunity rules, reasoning that even considering racially based differences is antithetical to the Constitution and to democracy. In her famous dissent in Metro Broadcasting v. FCC, Justice O’Connor questioned whether diverse media ownership correlates with diverse programming. Justice O’Connor reasoned that broadcasters, irrespective of their race, would respond to what the market dictates.
Commercial media has become less local rather than more. If we lose public broadcasting, we will lose an important source of local content that is unconstrained by the need to be mass appeal.