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The Airways are Owned by the People

On December 1, 2011 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) held a hearing in Atlanta inquiring about the “Information Needs of Atlanta”. It was hosted by Atlanta Congressman John Lewis, and FCC Commissioners Michael Copps and Mignon Cluburn. The event took place at the auditorium of the Georgia Tech Research Institute. 

This was last hearing for Michael Copps who will be retiring the end of December 2011. 

I was asked by WRFG-Atlanta 89.3 (Radio Free Georgia Broadcasting Foundation) to represent the station on the panel. 

I have been involved in community media since 1991 when I began producing a local public affairs show (Just Peace) on WRFG-Atlanta. Shortly after I was elected to WRFG’s Board of Directors. 

In 2002, I was selected as chair of the board and held the position for 7 years. This encompassed organizing an FCC hearing in Atlanta in 2003 on deregulation 

This was when the FCC, under Michael Powell (a President George Bush appointment), was about to attempt to make sweeping changes to relax media ownership rules, further allowing a more consolidated and less diverse media landscape. The FCC seemed to prefer to vote under cover and in secret it appears as hardly any official FCC hearings on the issue were to be held so communities organized their own hearings. This is what we did at WRFG. Ours was the last hearing in the country in 2003 before the FCC was to vote on the issue. While all FCC Commissioners were invited, Democratic FCC Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathon Adelstein attended the event. Copps reported last night that in 2003 three million people responded by contacting their Congresspersons expressing opposition to the deregulation efforts. Next week the FCC will yet again consider ownership rules – go to the FCC website at www.fcc.gov for more information. 

The point is, Americans obviously get concerned about media at critical times but it needs to be consistent and once again we need to step up to the plate as it were. As Michael Copps said last night at Georgia Tech, to a crowd also composed of Occupy Atlanta activists, that if you are concerned about issues other than the media then the media needs to be at the very least second on your list because your major area of concern won’t likely get the coverage you need if the media is all the more consolidated and less diverse.

Below are my comments at the FCC hearing in Atlanta on December 1, 2011. We had five minutes to speak. I also thanked Commissioner Copps for his service as one of the few and rare public servants who actually has advocated for the people and in the public interest. 

I was on Panel One with the theme being “The State of Atlanta’s Media”.  — HG

I represent community owned radio in Atlanta – WRFG – Radio Free Georgia –– offering voices from a vast diversity of people and opinions to empower individuals and communities. We stand against sexism, racism, classism, militarism and anti-immigrant chauvinism. Community radio “educates and informs the public in return for public investment.” Commercial media instead sells products for profit.

It has been found in the history of capitalism that privatization and consolidation of wealth leads to inequities, poverty and pain.  And we have witnessed degradation and relaxation of regulations in virtually everything we’ve established in America that offers some kind of public commons that benefits the people rather than corporations. It is said that unregulated concentration of wealth led to today’s economic debacle, yet many want more of the same formula. This is insane. It has to stop.

We have seen this concentration in media. Today we have 4 corporate giants controlling vast numbers of radio stations and reaping billions of dollars at the expense of independent news. Media in America represents corporate America. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

The public spectrums that commercial interests use to transmit their signals, are owned by us – the people. Yet the government has allowed these interests to use the spectrums for free to then monopolize and make billions of dollars while offering next to no public service. It’s payback time. This cannot continue.

Democracy demands informed voters. With corporate media, however, we have a population tainted by information delineated by commercial interests rather than the breadth of views and opinions of an independent public media system. Given that the FCC has failed to regulate media in the public interest the situation cries for integrity and independence.

What does Atlanta need? It needs more non-profit community media and the existing non-profit media needs financial support on an on-going basis, rather than teetering on edge by consistently having to go to it’s listeners for funds – like a bake sale. Alternatives need to be adapted and planned for immediately.

Here are three recommendations to support and build community media:

For one – The government auctions off frequencies and there are plans to do more of this. This is the ultimate of gross privatization.  Yet, these frequencies are owned by us, the public. Instead of auctioning them off they should be given to communities across America for public and non-profit broadcasters and public television. They are ours after all.

Secondly – Commercial media should be required to pay for the right of making use of the frequencies, owned by us, that they use for their own financial benefit. This is a gift from the public that they do not deserve. Substantial license fees from commercial media should be immediately implemented and the fees should be used to fund public and non-profit broadcasters and public television in a Public Media Trust Fund.

Thirdly  – There should be a $300 media tax credit for Americans  – tax payers will check the media entity they want their money to be assigned to, and/or have the money go into the Public Media Trust Fund.

Occupying Wall Street demonstrators protest economic inequities in America. The Occupation of Media needs to be included  – and that means occupying the FCC and the airways to demand that public/community radio be prioritized as a necessary public commons and there must be incentives and opportunities offered to make that a reality.

Finally, I agree with Commissioner Michael Copps when he said there should a PBSS – a Public Broadcasting System on Steroids. He said “That can’t be done on the cheap, and we’ll hear laments that there’s not a lot of extra cash floating around these days. But other nations find ways to support such things. The point is we need to start talking, start planning, now.”  Indeed. Let’s do it!

References:

Free Press www.freepress.net

Black Agenda Report www.blackagendareport.com – articles by editor Bruce Dixon

ON THE CHOPPING BLOCK:
State Budget Battles and the Future of Public Media (2011)
http://www.savethenews.org/blog/11/11/14/new-report-highlights-impact-state-budget-cuts-public-media

NEW PUBLIC MEDIA:
A PLAN FOR ACTION (2010)
http://www.freepress.net/files/New_Public_Media.doc.pdf

All books by media scholar Robert McChesney, Professor in the Department of Communications, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

HEATHER GRAY is the producer of “Just Peace” on WRFG-Atlanta 89.3 FM covering local, regional, national and international news. She has been involved in agriculture advocacy and communications for 20 years in the United States and internationally. She serves on the Pacifica National Radio Board of Directors and lives in Atlanta, Georgia and can be reached at hmcgray@earthlink.net

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Heather Gray is a writer and radio producer in Atlanta, Georgia and has also lived in Canada, Australia, Singapore, briefly in the Philippines and has traveled in southern Africa. For 24 years she has worked in support of Black farmer issues and in cooperative economic development in the rural South. She holds degrees in anthropology and sociology. She can be reached at hmcgray@earthlink.net.

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