Michael Powell [photo] needs a hug. Saying he ”heard the voice of public concern loud and clear,” the Republican chairman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC, Washington, D.C.) held a press conference on 20 August announcing the creation of a task force to study how much time TV and radio stations devote to covering local events.
The group, said Powell, will evaluate how recent changes in media ownership rules will affect local and community radio. He also trumpeted plans to expedite approval of applications for low-power FM (LPFM) radio licenses, the kind community radio operators depend on. LPFM licensing was featured in a story on the proposed media rules and radio localism that appeared in these pages in July [see ”Radio Pirates Grapple with U.S. Regulators,” /WEBONLY/resource/jul03/nfcc.html].
Critics say that Powell--the object of much criticism after pushing through rules changes that would allow far-reaching consolidation among big media companies--got religion just as Congress and the courts prepared to send wrecking balls to topple his authority over such matters. On 3 September, a federal court issued a stay preserving the old rules while it considers a lawsuit challenging the new ones. The court action comes on the heels of a House of Representatives vote to block the relaxation of media ownership caps. Similar action is expected in the Senate.
In a statement reflecting sentiment widely felt on Capitol Hill, FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps, a Democrat, called Powell's proposed task force on localism ”a day late and a dollar short.” Senator Byron L. Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat, said, ”It is a very curious strategy for the chairman to change the rules...and then, nearly three months later, propose a process to examine how those rules might affect localism.”
The lawsuit challenging the FCC's new media rules was brought by a broad group of organizations headed by the Prometheus Radio Project (Philadelphia). Prometheus's technical director, Pete Tri Dish (a nom de guerre), has complained that the agency sided with corporate media giants when setting rules for low-power FM station licensing. Despite Powell's attempt to paint himself as the friend of independent broadcasters, Tri Dish reacted warily, saying, ”We have low-power [license applicants] that have been waiting three years to hear from the FCC without so much as a postcard.”