The Main Studio Rule Is Dead; Long Live the Main Studio

Scott R. Flick is a partner at Pillsbury law firm. This post originally appeared on Comm Law Center.

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In a move that would have once been stunning, but which now was so expected as to be anticlimactic, the FCC today voted to eliminate the Main Studio Rule. In doing so, it also eliminated various associated requirements such as the mandate that a station’s main studio be staffed during normal business hours with at least two employees (one management, one staff), and that it have the capability to locally originate programming. The FCC did require that stations eliminating their main studio make any part of their public file that is not yet online available to the public during normal business hours “at an accessible place within its community of license.” It also required stations to ensure that community members can continue to reach the station by telephone without cost, typically by maintaining a local or toll-free number.

Even though the FCC eliminated the rule on its own motion rather than in response to a petition (the times they are a-changin’ at the FCC), the move was not without controversy, with Commissioners Clyburn and Rosenworcel voting against the change. Both expressed concern that allowing a station to close its local main studio would forever sever the intimate connection between the station and its community.  That is not a concern to be taken lightly, as the close connection between stations and their communities is what has made broadcasting unique among its many competitors.

Realistically, however, the elimination of the rule will not mark the elimination of main studios. Main studios did not originally arise from regulatory fiat, but from practicality.  In the early days of radio, when pressure from musicians’ unions caused many radio stations to ban the airing of recorded music, main studios were a necessity. There were no satellites, fiber feeds, or microwave links to relay programming long distances, so stations had to create programming under their own roof. Even those stations that did play records had to have a place to play them close to the transmitter. Early telephone lines were noisy, expensive, unreliable, and depending on your location, possibly unavailable.

But technology marched on. One of my fun experiences as a young lawyer was representing one of the oldest radio stations in the world and seeing the antique sound lathes used to cut grooves in disks so large you could barely get your arms around them. Programs were “syndicated” by physically transporting these disks around the country from station to station.  Even with this advance in technology, however, stations still had to have a place near their transmitter to play the disks, so by definition, every station had some local program origination capability.

As wireline connections around the country became more ubiquitous and reliable, and radio networks began to grow, the main studio changed with it. No longer did every minute of programming need to be produced at the transmitter site; it could be relayed from long distances. It was during this period, specifically 1939, that the FCC created the Main Studio Rule, forever freezing in bureaucratic amber what a main studio should look like.

Since then, a thousand technological advances have changed broadcasting (one of them being the advent of commercial TV). Equipment became smaller, more reliable, and automated. Microwave, satellite, and now Internet transmission made program distribution to stations easy and relatively inexpensive. Hard-drive based music servers allowed diverse program schedules to be created and aired on radio stations without anyone needing to sit at a turntable flipping an LP every three minutes. Relieved of these mechanical duties, on-air talent could focus all their energies on connecting with their audience rather than “tending” the station and its equipment. And because of the ease with which audio and video can be relayed, that on-air talent could now do all of that from nearly anywhere in the world. The days of having to be within a few hundred feet of the transmitter at all times are long gone.

Of course, that’s the operational side of the equation. One of the reasons the Main Studio Rule was created was to “enable members of the public to participate in live programs and present complaints or suggestions to the stations.” However, the wonder of many of the technologies discussed above is not that they exist, but that they are sufficiently inexpensive that not only stations but audiences are using them. Once, appearing on a live radio program would have required a trip to the main studio. Later, calling in to a live network program in New York from Kansas would have been so expensive as to likely exceed the value of any prize you might win.

That problem was first solved with toll-free calling to the distant studio — a technology that came on the scene 25 years after the Main Studio Rule was created. Then toll-free numbers were supplanted by Voice-Over-Internet-Protocol (VOIP) equipment and cellphones that eliminated the need to pay separate long distance charges. That capability was then improved upon by Skype and other services that allowed viewers and listeners to appear aurally and visually anywhere in the world with a broadband connection.

As for listeners being able to “present complaints or suggestions to the stations,” if toll-free numbers didn’t address that, email certainly did. And if not email, then texts and social media. I would be surprised to hear if there is a single station in the country that gets more main studio visits in a year than it receives messages via social media in a day.

So with the elimination of the Main Studio Rule will main studios just disappear? Hardly. They’ll just look less like 1939.

For most stations, main studios will continue to be useful hubs for organizing programming and operations. They just won’t all need to look and operate the same. Stations emphasizing a hyper-local format will have main studios so sophisticated that the original drafters of the Main Studio Rule would be in awe; a local studio with capabilities far beyond what any national radio network had in 1939 or afterwards.

Other stations, for example those whose formats focus on importing high-quality regional or national programming and distributing it locally, will have main studios with topnotch communications and automation gear, but probably no employee staring at the front door all day just in case someone shows up to see the public file (which is or soon will be online). We live in the age of optimization, and main studios will be optimized to connect with a station’s audience, not to meet a 1939 conception of what a main studio should look like.

Of course, we have to be realistic. Some stations will certainly shut down their main studio (particularly if we define a “main studio” as a place of daily program origination) because they believe they can operate more efficiently without that affectation of early radio. There will also be those that close their main studio to reduce operating costs to the greatest extent possible. In an era when competition from the Internet and other media has caused numerous rural stations to shut down and mail their licenses back to the FCC, allowing a station to operate without a main studio certainly seems preferable to forcing it to go dark because it can’t meet studio expenses.

And in that regard, perhaps it’s time to acknowledge what the Main Studio Rule really was — a government mandate to maintain a rigid brick-and-mortar presence in an Internet Age. It’s existence hindered stations from evolving and adapting to the rapidly changing business strategies of their many non-broadcast competitors. Of course the analogy doesn’t stop there. Just as most people like the idea of a physical store where they can go and handle the merchandise, they like the idea of a main studio — a place where, if they ever felt like it, they could visit and see the product being created. Of course, many of the people that like the idea of having a physical store buy everything online, and many that like the idea of a traditional main studio are streaming their music and video from non-broadcast sources.

Broadcasters could perhaps afford the luxury of having a formal main studio designed to suit the FCC when they were the only game in town, but that was then, and this is now. Most broadcasters will continue operating a main studio in one form or another, and if viewers and listeners find the programming from such stations is better and tune in accordingly, there will be plenty of stations with elegant main studios for the foreseeable future.  If, however, the stations that divert those funds to program acquisition or other initiatives are the ones attracting larger audiences, then, and only then, will the era of the main studio finally draw to a close.

 



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