- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 13, 2008

One thing President Reagan taught us all is that government regulations often restrain economic activity and restrict personal freedom. Or one would have thought.

The Federal Communications Commission has just proposed reimposing content regulations on radio broadcasters similar to ones the Reagan FCC repudiated in the early 1980s.

The rationale for the original content regulations (imposed over several decades) is that radio broadcasters tend to lose touch with the local populations they were intended to serve under their “public service obligation.” The theory (never really proven) is that, since they typically faced little competition from other broadcasters, they would respond only to narrow commercial interests, not the public as a whole. This led to quotas for certain types of government-preferred, non-entertainment programming.

The same reasoning led to the so-called Fairness Doctrine, which throttled real debate and almost strangled talk radio in its infancy. The result was that broadcasters not only had to fill out a lot of paperwork no one ever read, but the public was saddled with messages and formats they really didn”t want.

The Reagan FCC, under Mark Fowler (a k a the “Mad Monk”), recognized that content regulations were shortchanging consumers. Moreover, as the FCC noted at the time, competition in the radio broadcast industry had grown dramatically over the last decades. That, plus the increasing sensitivity and efficacy of radio receivers (especially in automobiles), meant consumers had access to far more radio broadcasts than when the original regulations were promulgated.

So what is the FCC thinking? Is there less competition among radio stations than before? Have radio receivers deteriorated? No, there are nearly twice as many radio stations in the typical market than there were 25 years ago, and receiver technology has continued apace.

Did the FCC hear an outcry from consumers who feel neglected? No. What the FCC commissioners did receive was a staff report, based on a several-year study of the “problem,” which concluded that people really don’t know what types of programming are in their interests. Based on this report, the FCC concluded it would be a good idea for some folks in Washington, D.C., and in the local communities to decide what types of programming radio listeners really need to hear.

According to the FCC’s press release of last December, radio stations would have to “establish permanent advisory boards … with which to consult periodically on community needs and issues.” Also, ominously, the commission would adopt license renewal procedures to “ensure that all broadcasters provide some locally-oriented programming.” And who determines what qualifies as acceptable locally produced programming? Why, the FCC of course!

Imagine, for a moment, the outrage that would ensue if some federal agency were established to assure that publications were “responsive to the needs and issues” (FCC language) of their customers. Or, think of a federal agency to decide the kinds of foods Safeway, Kroger and Wal-Mart, as well as the local grocer, must carry and the space devoted to each type. Or a home improvement czar to tell Home Depot, Lowe’s and the local Ace Hardware just what building materials to carry and how they should be displayed. Think this would really help consumers? If so, I’m sure you’re a big supporter of the FCC’s proposed rule.

Not everyone at the FCC is marching mindlessly lock-step toward more regulation. Commissioner Rob McDowell recently warned, “We must keep in mind that we live in an exciting, market-driven, on-demand world that empowers all of us as consumers. As technologies and consumer habits continue to evolve, we should proceed with a healthy skepticism of regulation. Simply put, government cannot outsmart an unfettered and competitive market. … So why are policymakers like us at the FCC dusting off decades-old regulations to impose on broadcasters?” Why indeed!

James C. Miller III, a member of President Reagan’s cabinet, is a senior adviser at Husch Blackwell Sanders, LLP, and is a consultant to the National Association of Broadcasters.

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