FCC pushes for diversity and localism, but are its efforts contradictory?

Window Rock, AZ – Host Intro:

The Federal Communications Commission says it want to make it easier for more minorities to own television stations, and force broadcasters to air a minimum amount of local programming. But critics say that aim runs headlong into its push to allow more consolidation and cross-ownership of media companies. Arizona Public Radio's Daniel Kraker traveled to three stations across the state, and filed this report.

Ever taken a road trip and heard the same classic rock song on one radio station, then another, then another? (start sneaking up DJ ) Well, welcome to KTNN in Window Rock

SFX1: post DJ talking in Navajo duck down after a couple seconds

KTNN's 50 thousand watt signal is huge, but you'd be hard pressed to find a station that's more local. It serves the country's second largest Indian tribe on an enormous and remote reservation. For many of the 200 thousand or so Navajos who live here, KTNN is their only source of information.

AX1: Some of our people live off the highway, 15, 20 miles away, way out there, and they don't have electricity, or running water, but they have portable radios!

That's daytime DJ Roy Keeto. He plays country music, but his show includes funeral notices, local rodeo information, even schedules for traditional religious ceremonies and Christian revivals. KTNN also airs local news in both English and Navajo. And news director Paul Jones broadcasts a daily Navajo word of the day segment.

SFX2: play snippet of word of the day, Navajo word, then English translation, bat, duck down and out under ax

AX2: One of the main reasons why we started that was for our kids, a lot of our kids don't understand Navajo language, were raised in what we call the white man's world.

KTNN is a Navajo owned commercial AM station that makes a profit and serves its specific community. Which is exactly the vision the Federal Communications Commission had for broadcasters when it first started granting licenses in 1934. Radio and later TV stations were given free access to the public airwaves; in exchange, they were expected to provide a local public service to the communities where they were licensed. Democratic FCC commissioner Michael Copps says now, that's changed, and his agency is partly to blame.

AX3: Through all this deregulation, coupled with this great tsunami of media consolidation, in last 15 years, lots of that localism has disappeared.

Copps and the other four commissioners, Democrats and Republicans, tried to address that at the end of last year through new rules designed to help what's known as low power FM.

SFX3: bring up a bit of DJ promoting local musicians, duck under track

K-RIM is a 100 watt station in Payson, on the edge of the Mogollon Rim. Steve Bingham launched K-RIM eight years ago, when there was only one radio station in town.

AX4: We talk to local people everyday over the radio, we give em local news, local weather, local musicians, this is what radio used to be 50 years ago, we just turned the clock back.

K-RIM was the first low power FM station in Arizona. The FCC started licensing LPFMs a decade ago as a noncommercial, VERY local service. There are now about 800 LPFMs nationwide; most only reach a radius of about 4 miles. Bingham, a retired teacher and ham radio operator, built K-RIM with 30 thousand dollars out of his own pocket. Now it's the number one station in the region.

AX5: That's pretty amazing, because up here, you can listen to 20 other stations, including the 3 or 4 top rated stations in the Valley, and yet they're listening to the local station.

So how does a rinky-dink station compete with some of the biggest broadcasters in Phoenix? It mixes local issues and music with a blend of independent music and classic rock. Bingham says there's a huge need for LPFM right now.

AX6: I was looking at the ratings a couple of days ago, for the greater metropolitan Phoenix area, the number one station was Clear Channel, 2 was Mexican, 3, 4, 5, was Clear Channel, how much diversity can you get when one company owns, they own 11 stations down there?

The FCC began looking into such criticisms five years ago. This past December the commission voted to require stations to air a certain amount of local programming. It was something of a reversal of the deregulation of the past quarter century, which gave broadcasters more leeway in meeting their public service obligations. And that concerns Dennis Wharton with the National Association of Broadcasters.

AX7: The dilemma here for the FCC is them dictating program contact, because then they're bumping up against 1st Amendment issues.

The FCC's new rules are intended to make broadcasters prove they're serving their local communities. Democratic commissioner Copps says that's the way it used to be, when licenses expired every three years. Now they're good for eight years, and Copps says only require a postcard for renewal.

AX8: If we're going to have localism, diversity, competition more than we have now, we're going to have to have a licensing procedure that lets the broadcasters know that someone is watching.

SFX4: This would be the production team squeaky door we need to put some oil on that, duck under

Marco Flores is news director at Univision channel 33 in Phoenix. He oversees a small TV news team that produces one hour of local news a day. He compares that to about five hours at his English language competitors. Still, Univision's five o'clock news has ranked number one in the city for the past five years.

AX9: We're not a news breaking station, what we are is a community service station. We're number one because we have a good sense of what the community needs.

Here's how that affects his decision making.

AX10: There could be a ten car pileup on I-10, and I don't have a helicopter which everyone has and I can't take that shot Congress might be considering an immigration reform, so the question is what story do I open with, the ten car pileup that is affecting hundreds of people, on the freeway, plus relatives, versus 20,30,50 thousand people who are waiting to hear as to what's going on with immigration.

While Univision 33's news staff is entirely Latino, Univision's owners are not. The network was sold to a private equity firm last year. In fact, there are no minority owned television stations in Phoenix, the nation's second fastest growing Hispanic market. According to the public interest group Free Press, minorities own only about 3 percent of the nation's TV stations, and only about 7 percent of the radio stations. Craig Aaron is the group's communications director.

AX11: In this day and age, that's a shame, it's a tragedy, and it's the direct result of failed FCC policies. Because what the FCC has done time and again is encourage consolidation, and there's nothing worse for minority ownership than consolidation.

Minority owned stations are generally in the weakest financial positions in their markets, and thus the most ripe for buyouts. Marco Flores at the Univision station in Phoenix says new management hasn't changed at all what he does. But Jonathan Higuera, president of the Arizona Latino Media Association, says it has changed the other major Spanish language TV station in town. Two years ago Telemundo was bought out by NBC, which cut most of the local news staff, instead providing a regional newscast out of Houston.

AX12: That's an example of when you have corporate ownership, they can make a decision at a corporate level, impact your community, and sometimes there's not a lot of recourse

Higuera stresses that just because a station is owned by a person of color, that won't necessarily make it better suited to serve its community. But as the experience at Navajo owned KTNN and elsewhere seems to show, local ownership, and minority ownership, may well increase the odds.

For Arizona Public Radio, I'm Daniel Kraker