In a move that many in the industry felt was long overdue, the Federal Communications Commission has now eliminated its radio duplication rule.
Unexpectedly, it did so for FM stations as well as the AM band.
This outcome was not cheered by everyone at the commission. One commissioner said the decision to include FMs chips away at the commission’s goal of protecting localism, competition and diversity.
At its August open meeting, the commission adopted a Report and Order eliminating the rule that restricts the duplication of programming on commonly owned broadcast radio stations operating in the same service and geographic area.
Initially adopted in 1964, the rules on this issue had been updated several times since to reflect changes in the marketplace. But now was the time to eliminate the rule outright, according to Chairman Ajit Pai.
The commission decided that rescinding the rule would help struggling stations stay on the air and give licensees greater flexibility to address issues of local concern in a timelier fashion, particularly in a time of crisis. “In order to help AM broadcasters overcome … challenges, the commission has been looking for ways to help by alleviating unnecessary regulatory burdens, providing more flexibility and improving sound quality,” Pai said.
He said this move give stations greater flexibility to simulcast programming — thereby helping them stay afloat and continue serving their communities — and also that simulcasting could assist AM stations looking to transition to all-digital transmission. “One station could offer the higher-audio quality of digital transmission, while another could keep supplying analog programming to listeners who don’t yet have digital-capable equipment,” he wrote in a statement.
The move is designed to help AM stations survive in an increasingly competitive marketplace, Pai said. Nowhere in his statement, however, did the chairman discuss reasons for expanding the change to the FM band.
The outcome was cheered by the National Association of Broadcasters.
“We applaud the commission for continuing to modernize its media rules,” said NAB Senior Vice President of Communications Ann Marie Cumming in a statement. “Given that there is no longer any rationale for imposing a ban on duplicating one’s radio signal, we appreciate the FCC’s decision to rescind the rule.”
FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a member of the Democratic minority on the commission, concurred with the ruling in respect to the AM band but she dissented in all other respects.
She said that in the 36 hours before the August meeting, the FCC leadership discarded its original Report and Order language, which would have eliminated the rule in the AM band only, as we reported earlier.
“As originally drafted, this decision would help alleviate some of the strain on these stations and experiment with rolling back this rule in the AM band,” she said. “It would be a smart test bed to see how localism, competition and diversity in the band fared when this rule was set aside.”
But the agency threw its approach away, she said, and eliminated the policy in both AM and FM in one fell swoop. But signal quality issues in these bands are totally different, Rosenworcel said, as are economic issues and the impact of content duplication.
“So what we have is yet another small chip in our principles [that] rushes ahead without doing the due diligence needed to consider the impact on localism, competition and diversity,” she said.
Commissioner Geoffrey Starks, a fellow Democrat, said the majority leadership failed to explain “how the benefits to FM broadcasters outweigh the public interest in protecting truly local broadcast programming and local audiences from the potential harms caused by unfettered duplicate programming.”
“I have concerns that today’s decision will undoubtedly make it easier and more cost-effective for large station groups to hoard local stations without any obligation to provide significant programming that meets local community needs,” he said.
Pai and fellow Republican Commissioners Michael O’Rielly and Brendan Carr said elimination of the rule will give radio stations greater flexibility when it comes to format changes and ultimately allow stations to improve service to their communities.
The rulemaking is part of the commission’s ongoing Modernization of Media Regulation Initiative.