One Republican Federal Communications Commission chairman (Michael Powell) leaves, another one (Kevin J. Martin) takes his place; will it really make a difference in what you hear on the radio? Yeah, probably.
The good news about Martin is that he’s not the flag-waver for media consolidation that Powell was—he’s for it and all, but he doesn’t want to eliminate broadcast ownership caps altogether. The bad news is that Martin is even more gung ho about indecency. He’s often argued that FCC judgments fining radio and TV stations weren’t nearly harsh enough.
The FCC reports that it received 1,405,419 complaints about broadcast indecency in 2004, roughly evenly split between radio and television. That’s up from 202,032 in 2003, and only 111 complaints in 2000. It’s not that the airwaves have gotten a thousand times raunchier in the last five years—it’s that L. Brent Bozell III has hit the scene. Bozell is the chief bluenose at the Parents Television Council, which MediaWeek reported was responsible for around 99.9 percent of last year’s complaints. (The PTC claims that figure should only be about 21 percent.) He also runs the Media Research Center (dedicated to “neutralizing liberal media bias”), and belongs to the secretive, hyper-conservative Council for National Policy. Martin wrote to Bozell in 2003 that he believes broadcasters’ First Amendment rights “should be limited by good taste.” Which would sort of negate the point of the First Amendment, wouldn’t it?
Even small complaint campaigns are spreading a chill through radio and TV. Jeff Jarvis of buzzmachine.com noted in November that exactly three people wrote letters complaining about a Fox broadcast of Married by America in April. One of those letters was sent out, verbatim, by 21 people, to multiple recipients at the FCC. Result: an official tally of 159 complaints, and the highest-ever proposed FCC fine: $1,183,000. Of course, there’s no official mechanism for people to tell the FCC that a broadcast didn’t bother them a bit—although a woman named Amanda Toering has set up speakspeak.org to launch “noncomplaint” campaigns. The current maximum penalty per station, per incident, is $32,500, but the House of Representatives just passed the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act, which would require broadcasters to put half a million dollars in the swear jar for each offense.
And what’s an offense, exactly? The FCC isn’t saying. In a recent announcement that showing Saving Private Ryan uncut on broadcast TV is A-OK, they declared that “contextual considerations are critical.” That’s exactly what the bluenoses want. If the border between permissible and impermissible is clearly defined, there are always ways to get around it; if it’s not, every broadcaster that can’t shrug off $500,000—meaning every one that’s not part of a Clear Channel/Infinity- sized conglomerate, from college radio on up—has to err on the side of total blandness.
Even Commissioner Martin has acknowledged that the FCC probably can’t police satellite radio, though (since subscribers pay for it), much as he and Senate Commerce Committee chair Ted Stevens would like to hold it to the same vague standards. Just to make sure, Representative Bernard Sanders, Independent from Vermont, has introduced a bill to keep the FCC’s indecency regulations out of orbit. But if terrestrial radio has become an oligopoly, satellite radio is a duopoly: two companies, XM and Sirius. (Every so often, word goes around that they’re discussing a merger, and both companies promptly issue indignant nondenial denials.) They collectively had fewer than 5 million subscribers at the end of last year.
The satellites have yet to break any bands or create any stars, so Sirius and XM are paying through the nose to attract existing big names; Sirius is reportedly spending $500 million, or the top potential fine for a thousand offenses on terra firma, for a five-year contract with Howard Stern, beginning next year. And Sirius is crossing its fingers that it won’t have mechanical problems: According to its SEC filings, its three satellites are uninsured, and if two of them fail, it’s off the air for at least two years.
Conventional radio is starting to treat the satellite companies as serious competition anyway. There’s a rapidly growing radio format, called “Jack” or “Bob,” that’s modeled on satellite stations’ extensive playlists. It hasn’t come to New York yet, but it’s caught on in Indianapolis and Dallas, and recently popped up in L.A. “Jack” features a thousand or more old favorites of 35-to-44-year-olds, rather than the roughly 200 songs that a station normally plays over and over, and eliminates DJs from the mix. Presumably, that makes it easier to be limited by good taste.