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									The FCC and Free Speech

When you think about it for very long, you wonder if there is a good
reason that the United States even has a Federal Communications
Commission. But with a closer look at the value this important
government department adds to our public life, we can get a good
perspective on the reasons we need the FCC to be there to provide some
guidance for how the public airwaves are used.

The FCC grew out of a need in the early thirties to have a regulatory
body to assist with issues relative to the growing radio industry in
regards to monopolies on the airwaves and how radio conglomerates were
handling relationships with affiliates and employees. So in 1934,
Congress passed the Communications Act which expanded the Federal Radio
Commission that was already in existence and gave it a wider
jurisdiction. The agency that came out of this reorganization and
expansion became what we now know as the Federal Communications

Much of the work of the early FCC was to work to diversify ownership of
radio stations and impose some control on the powerful communications
conglomerates of NBC and CBS. So the early regulatory activity of the
FCC accomplished three improvements in the radio industry…

*     In a document issued in 1940 called Report on Chain Broadcasting,
the FCC began the work of limiting the growth of conglomerate ownership
of telecommunications facilities. It was believed then that
diversification of ownership would foster competition and greater
creative opportunity in the radio industry.

*     The FCC introduced some limits on the extent that the large radio
conglomerates could demand time of their affiliates. This control was
necessary to establish a cooperative relationship between affiliates and
the large networks and cut down on affiliate abuse which was harmful to
local markets.

*     Finally the FCC stepped in to put significant control over “artist
bureaus” by which networks were able to function as both the agents and
employers of artists they had under contract. Obviously this was not a
situation that resulted in the best interests of the artists.

Notice that in none of these original goals of the FCC was there any
jurisdiction over content or public decency implied in its powers or
responsibilities. This doesn’t mean that taking an administrative role
in the content of what goes out over the nation’s airwaves not a proper
use of the FCC. But it is a change from the original charge that was
given to the FCC to justify its creation.

The change in focus began in the Reagan administration. It was during
this time in our history that much of the oversight of the large media
conglomerates were removed. As a result the door was opened for large
corporations to own a variety of media outlets and to take possession of
a large possession of a majority of a particular media’s outlets which
narrowed competition. The outcome was the concentration of ownership of
radio stations in the hands of a few large corporations which has lead to
a homogenization of that media. But the lifting of tight regulations
also has resulted in the explosion of cable television the expansion of
options for consumers and the proliferation of talk radio.

It was in the new century when the FCC began to shift its focus toward
taking a greater control over content in broadcasting. Many say that it
was the super bowl fiasco with Janet Jackson that set off the changes.
But leading up to that event, there had already been some notable
crackdowns such as greater fines for particularly offensive programs such
as the Howard Stern radio broadcast.

It remains to be seen if the FCC will continue to serve as a moderator of
content and obscenity in years to come. If that is the direction, there
will be some very public discussion over the role of government versus
the rights of people under the free speech protection provided by the
constitution. But such dialog is healthy in a free society as we
continue to redefine how far we will allow the agencies of our government
to protect us while using the power of these agencies for the greatest
public good.


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