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Clyburn Adjusts to a New Role at FCC

Commission veteran still highlights consumer issues and “smart, targeted” regulation

The end of July marks eight years since Mignon Clyburn joined the Federal Communications Commission. She was sworn in by Judge Matthew J. Perry Jr., the late renowned civil rights lawyer and federal judge, in her home state of South Carolina in 2009.

This summer finds Clyburn six months into an unfamiliar role, that of senior member of the FCC’s Democratic minority — indeed its only member, until Democrat Jessica Rosenworcel and Republican Brendan Carr presumably are approved by the Senate.

Clyburn was nominated by President Obama and has served most of her FCC tenure in a Democratic majority; she was acting chair of the commission for six months in 2013 (after which one headline described “the brief, ridiculously productive reign of FCC Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn”). Former Chairman Tom Wheeler has been quoted calling her the “conscience” of the commission. But she now is at the conclusion of her second term. As of early July, it was unknown whether President Trump would renominate her, though she could stay on beyond the end of the year if a replacement is not confirmed.

Commissioner Clyburn met with Radio World Editor in Chief Paul McLane and Contributing Editor Emily Reigart at FCC headquarters in Washington for an interview about issues of concern to radio. Text has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Radio World: How would you grade yourself in regard to radio issues after eight years?
Mignon Clyburn: I have this love for radio, always have. When I moved back to Charleston, S.C., I used to hang out and listen to WPAL(AM). I was on that station a number of times as a guest before I came to the FCC, and we would talk about the issues of the day. I had my own weekly newspaper and always wanted a show of my own that would bring the newspaper to life; I saw the benefit of the written word as well as the spoken word and thought that they were complementary, allowing for more discourse.

I love radio. It is one of the most liberating platforms in that you can look anywhere you want, dress any way you want, nobody knows — as long as you have that connectivity to the community.

I give myself a bifurcated grade. My heart is there. What we’ve done, I think, we could have done quicker, in some cases maybe a little better; but I think all in all, especially [for] smaller stations, we have offered a lifeline of sorts — translators [and] low-power. All in all, I think things have improved. I don’t give myself an “A” or a “B-plus” because I think we should’ve done them sooner.

RW: In front of us is the big possible change with the main studio rule. You know how radio’s connection to the community has developed historically; are we going to see that connection go away? Eliminating the rule seems almost a foregone conclusion.
Clyburn: I voted for the NPRM, but I made it very clear that I had some reservations. That presence is often the only link — outside of that signal, that broadcast — that people have to a station. When I was more active in radio, that station was a place that we hung out. Literally hung out. People went there for telethons, they went there for so many things. It was a part of the community.

What happens if we make a true shift, particularly in some of the critical and maybe smaller markets? I don’t want to seem like I am disconnected and not recognize that there may be some small stations where there might be some benefit; but I also know that radio, the stations and the people who own and are on the air, are often our verbal connectivity lifeline.

What happens if the station just becomes some type of a repeater station, so to speak? Or it becomes sort of nationalized and there’s no local type of involvement? And then heaven forbid something negative happens; where’s that person on the air offering interactive — where is that engagement with the community?

I rarely stand in the way of us having a conversation or discussion, putting things out on the table. But I am worried what this means. Will the nationalization of radio … what happens to the localism, what happens to diversity? What happens to how I fell in love with radio?

Photo by Emily M. Reigart

RW: But do we need a requirement for that? Someone in favor of eliminating the main studio requirement may say, “Technology allows us to be local without being physically there, and there’s so many competing media.” It sounds like your mind isn’t made up —
Clyburn: The devil is in the details. If you say, “We can be local [thanks to] technology and we can answer calls if they come in,” when will you answer calls? What does this mean? Will it be live? Will it be Memorex? I jokingly say this, but I’m very serious: What does this mean when it comes to the communities? [Radio] is the one signal that we have that’s truly, potentially, local. If we move in this direction, what does the future bring?

I’m not going to stand in the way if a legitimate case can be made. I will vote against something I think would decrease that connection to the community.

RW: What about eliminating or easing subcaps on broadcasters to own a certain number of stations within a market? Any strong opinion; is the current limit good for the public interest?
Clyburn: I have strong opinions about competition, localism and viewpoint diversity. And I’ve got strong opinions about holding onto what I think is pure when it comes to the Communications Act. There is a reason why we established media ownership rules; and there are reasons some of them should be retained.

I’m not going to stand in the way of progress; I’m not going to stand in the way of change if it’s needed. But if it’s going to compromise those three values — competition, localism and viewpoint diversity — it’s going to be problematic for me, and more importantly it’s going to be problematic for the communities that are served.

RW: Chairman Pai talks about doing away with regulatory “underbrush” or unnecessary regulations; you’ve talked about “smart” regulation. Do specific radio regulations come to mind that need to be updated? It feels like this push is coming from him.
Clyburn: I am sort of in a wait-and-see. When it comes to what we’ve done in terms of FM translators, I cannot tell you the number of people … Just last week a colleague of mine who owns an AM station said, “Oh my gosh, this is breathing life into me.” When we made those types of adjustments, I could see the joy and promise in their eyes.

When we talk about wholesale deregulation — without looking at what it could mean in terms of the rest of the ecosystem — I’ve got a problem with that.

It needs to be smart, targeted and needed; and we have to know the consequences. Everything we do has a ripple effect. And if it doesn’t improve and make stronger, particularly stations that might have needed a lifeline, then I think it’s problematic.

RW: Some translator owners feel the rules don’t give them sufficient protection because one or two listener complaints about interference, even to a distant station, can knock them off the air. Is that on your radar?
Clyburn: When anybody says anything about interference, that’s problematic. When there is an issue or a complaint, we need to investigate it, but we need to make sure that it’s fair and balanced.

RW: Do you think translators, under certain circumstances, should not be considered secondary service?
Clyburn: I have not come to a conclusion at this point.

RW: Most of the effort in AM revitalization has been on the translator side, but there’s a whole bunch of other proposed technical rules. Will we see action outside translator windows this year to move revitalization further?
Clyburn: We made some tentative conclusions last year when it comes to AM stations in terms of daytime/nighttime, groundwave protection, no nighttime skyway protection, no critical hour protections. And we’ve heard from people pro and con.

Look, the chairman sets the standard. He has been passionate about these issues, as am I. I’m willing to do anything that I can to make sure that this medium — again, I’ve got this love for AM too — that this medium has all the oxygen it needs to thrive.

I might be a little less definitive than you would like, other than the aspiration of ensuring that we give, particularly in smaller markets, these stations as much as we can — to be as fair as we can — to give them the tools they need. I am supportive of any initiative that’s targeted and empowering.

RW: Twenty-one years since the Telecom Act of ’96. National ownership caps were done away with … Were the changes in ownership restrictions for radio in the public interest? Do you feel good about 1996 and what followed in terms of deregulation and consolidation?
Clyburn: There are some aspects, and I guess that’s life, that are problematic. Look at over 15,000-plus radio stations, or whatever the number may be, and about 20 percent are owned by less than two handfuls of owners. Almost 50 percent of the revenue is within that framework. The station that I told you that I adored the most is not the same format [now], not the same owner. Many of these changes are personally problematic for me.

But I understand. I majored in banking and finance and economics. I understand scale and scope. I understand that if you truly believe in an inclusive, robust, healthy, capitalistic marketplace, that changes will come, and not all of them will be comfortable.

I miss the days of old, so I’m nostalgic. I miss WPAL — AM, FM — they spoke to me. I miss that. And there are a lot of other people who say, “No matter what city I go to, I hear the same thing.” What does that mean for local artists? What does that mean for local voices? What does that mean in terms of any type of investigative reporting on radio? What does that mean for community talk and interaction? What does it mean?

Not a definitive answer. I hate to say this: I listen to less radio now because it doesn’t speak to me as much.

RW: What about newspaper-broadcast ownership? Why shouldn’t a newspaper be allowed to come in, combine with a radio station, maybe save some jobs? Is it time to do away with that restriction?
Clyburn: Just look at your daily newspaper, it’s not what it used to be. Look at your local radio station. It may not be what it used to be. The one thing about the FCC, no matter the rule, if there are exceptions that need to be considered, particularly [in a] particular market, we have the opportunity to waive our existing requirements.

While some people may say it’s a little more cumbersome, a market-by-market approach is healthy. Because not all markets, not all stations, not all situations are created equal. Hopefully the barriers to that are as low as possible by way of expense and being able to file.

But a wholesale change — without looking at the entire ecosystem and what it means for localism, diversity and other ownership opportunities — you’re going to hear me stutter a little bit. And I don’t think stuttering is allowed on radio.

RW: How effective is the commission with three members instead of five?
Clyburn: If you look at the number of items we have teed up or entertained or voted on in the last several months, it’s been very effective. I don’t think there’s been any meeting with less than eight items. So volumetrically, we haven’t missed a beat.

Like most organizations, when by choice or circumstance you are forced to be more lean or efficient, you do what it takes. There is no office that’s dragging its feet, that’s making any excuses because we don’t have a full complement. We’re getting the people’s work done through three different lenses.

RW: Your current term expires shortly. Have you any reason to believe that you will or won’t be coming back?
Clyburn: I have not heard anything one way or the other. It is a privilege to serve. That will come from either the president and/or the Senate, as to what’s next for me.

RW: You’ve not had any conversations with the president about it?
Clyburn: I have not.

RW: How do you feel President Trump is doing so far, in regards to matters of communication policy that play out for broadcasters or FCC interactions?
Clyburn: My only interaction with him is through his appointed chair.

When it comes to radio and its viability, on most things we agree. When it comes to the more broad net — when it comes to communications policy — on most things we don’t agree.

RW: You mean the chairman?
Clyburn: Yes. This is the president’s appointee, and I am assuming that he is carrying out and representing the president to the best of his ability.

RW: I’m sure our readers would like to know briefly why you feel so strongly about net neutrality and internet regulation, particularly given your background as both a communications regulator and public utility commissioner.
Clyburn: When you talk about broadband-slash-the internet, it is the most enabling, empowering platform of our time. It will allow you, no matter what your platform or your signal, to possibly be picked up on another platform.

I am separated by time and space from my hometown radio station. If you’ve got an online presence, I can stay in touch and in tune; but if that presence is being compromised by someone who has a relationship or a preference for another station, has an interest in another station — the internet service provider who basically has your fate in their hands — that’s problematic.

That’s why you hear me talking about an open, non-discriminatory, transparent platform, where the rules of the road are clear, where there is no preference given for content that passes over it.

If I’ve got a relationship with your competitor and I slow down your traffic or cause it to be buffered, then you’ve got a problem, and we all have a problem. There should be a regulatory referee on the field ensuring that does not happen.

My colleagues, they don’t think that it should be explicit from that perspective — that the market will take care of itself. If the market took care of itself so well, we wouldn’t have traffic lights. If the market took care of itself so well, we wouldn’t have an FCC.

Companies, industry, they do what they do best. I don’t disrespect industry; but they look out for their interest. They look out for the interests of their shareholders. And if by chance I don’t make the cut, then who’s there to look out for me?

RW: The FCC has cut back its enforcement field presence. What can broadcasters concerned about pirate radio expect now?
Clyburn: While it is true that we have had cutbacks in field offices in terms of numbers and personnel, [it] has nothing to do with our commitment to ensuring that people are compliant with our rules. We have and will continue, as best we can, to stamp out those who will arbitrarily use our airwaves for whatever gain.

We’re cutting back across the board. We’ve got an appropriations hearing tomorrow [late June]. We’re going to get yet another haircut — from 5 to 7 percent depending on how you work the figures. That has an impact as to how we conduct ourselves. That has an impact on field offices.

So what we are attempting to do is work closely with local authorities because some of these pirate radio station quote-unquote “owners” have other businesses that might not be in sync and compliant with the local laws of the land.

It’s important to leverage whatever resources we have to include the local authorities to help in this effort, and know that when we catch them that we seize where we can, and we levy fines where we can, in order to be a deterrent. We’re just going to have to do it more efficiently, more targeted. You can point to the four or five areas of the country where it’s acute. I am confident, and I’ve seen it firsthand, that we’re doing the best we can to deal with the problem.

RW: Some broadcasters say pirate enforcement didn’t really feel like a priority under Chairman Wheeler as much as it is now.
Clyburn: I disagree. I visited as many field officers who told me what they were doing, I’ve ridden in the cars and heard some of the signals. Just because you don’t say it five times a day doesn’t mean it’s not happening. And you have to make important and hard decisions by way of cutting back on resources because of the budgetary realities.

Those are just the realities of today. You’ve got a finite resource by way of personnel. You are charged with keeping afloat and allowing for infrastructure, investment, opportunities and innovations to a [communications] ecosystem that’s responsible for one-sixth of our nation’s economy.

We know and have an appreciation for AM and FM radio … for low-power radio … for the radio ecosystem, period. Fifteen thousand licensees — you’re important, you’re vital.

But there are realities where we might not be able to do as much as possible. We are and will continue to leverage resources on the outside to ensure that we protect and serve.

RW: Some folks have said over time that at least one of the commissioners should be an engineer by requirement. Do you think that that’s the case?
Clyburn: I’ve met some engineers and [smiles] … I’ve met some engineers. I think what you want out of a person who sits in the offices on this floor is someone who cares about serving the community, who respects stations and their purpose, and who recognize that you’re first informers. You want a person that will listen when there are problems, and who will act expeditiously in order to solve them. I honestly don’t think that a particular label, major [or] discipline would guarantee that one way or the other.

Should we have more engineers surrounding us? The answer is yes, and we’re doing more … That’s just not a radio thing, it’s a communications thing.

RW: Where do you come down on whether smartphones should have FM, and whether it should be required?
Clyburn: I’ve been talking with some of your members, and you know who they are, for a number of years. One from Indiana, but I won’t mention his name … for a while.

The dexterity, the capacity for that has always been something that I’ve wanted and supported personally. Whether or not we should mandate something? I’ve been slower on the uptake when it comes to that.

I always felt that there were others like me who would want it and that the market would adjust to it. From what I’ve been told and what I’ve been seeing, all of the major wireless providers have at least one phone with a dedicated chip inside. So there has already been some movement; there are relationships and partnerships that have been established. I really think we’re moving in the direction without the government lifting and requiring a mandate. I think the market in and of itself will address this issue; I thought it would move faster, but I’m pretty much pleased with the direction. You’ve got a choice, you’ve got an option with the major providers, and I’m not unhappy about that.

RW: What would you say that the government’s role is, if any, in how radio broadcasters are present and available on the dashboard? Is there any role for the FCC in discussion about design of the dashboard and the way that consumers interact with audio? Many radio broadcasters feel like they’re getting lost in all of that.
Clyburn: That’s an interesting question. I don’t know if there should be a formal role. We all benefit if there is an interaction. This is one of those cases, I think, where it would be beneficial for both parties to be involved. You can look in other disciplines where there has been interaction at the government level and private industry in order to realize consumer benefits.

I don’t know if anything more formal should be realized at this time.


Mignon L. Clyburn is a graduate of the University of South Carolina and holds a bachelor of science degree in banking, finance and economics. She joined the FCC in August 2009 and was sworn in to her second term in February 2013; she served as acting chairwoman for much of that year, between the tenures of Julius Genachowski and Tom Wheeler.

She is former publisher and general manager of The Coastal Times, a Charleston-based weekly paper that focused on issues affecting the African American community; she co-owned and operated the family-founded newspaper for 14 years. Clyburn went on to serve 11 years as a member of the Public Service Commission of South Carolina and was its chair from July 2002 through June 2004.

Clyburn is the daughter of Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina and has been the subject of speculation at times as a possible future congressional candidate herself. Her FCC biography describes her as a “longtime champion of consumers and a defender of the public interest” who “considers every commission proceeding with an eye toward how it will affect each and every American.”

Issues of interest, according to her bio, include accessibility in communications for disabled citizens, competition across communications platforms and, where needed, “smart, targeted regulatory action” including media ownership rules that reflect “the demographics of America, affordable universal telephone and high-speed internet access, greater broadband deployment and adoption throughout the nation, and transparency in regulation.”

RW: In today’s environment, with this media landscape, with the number of proliferating channels, is it even still relevant to be talking about trying to change policy to encourage more minority ownership?
Clyburn: Number one, we need to make sure that whatever decisions we make in terms of changes with ownership rules don’t have a further adverse effect. Say what you will in terms of the benefit of the Telecommunications Act and all of the things that it has allowed; you have seen a steep decline in terms of women and minority ownership. And you have seen a steep climb when it comes to media consolidation. I don’t think all of that is accidental.

I’ve gotten pushback and [been] demonized for asking for data that will inform us going forward. I have asked for [the FCC] to look at the landscape in order to give us a better baseline when it comes to making a decision. It’s been mischaracterized, and there’s been pushback in terms of getting the type of data we need to make informed decisions.

There are some other things that we can do, along with Congress, to ensure that we have a diverse, inclusive media ecosystem. We got rid of what was then called the minority tax certificate. That vehicle allowed for an exponential increase in the number of diverse individuals who had stations. With that gone, we’ve seen a steep decline. Bringing that back, looking at those in the communities that want to be a part. I’m agnostic as to what it’s called [but] I think we need something of that nature.

I would even be willing to relax, in certain instances, ownership rules, if there were an incubator program. I’ve talked about coming up with an incubator program for those who want to be a part of this incredible space. The FCC should play a role with that, private industry should play a role with that. We all benefit when we are all inclusive. Diversity and inclusion benefit us all. Having voices that reflect this incredible mosaic of American experiences, I think we will all be better served.

A lot of the tensions that I see is because we are too siloed. Media platforms, if they were more reflective of the American experience, could truly be continual informers when it comes to that.

The NAB [Education] Foundation is doing some incredible things in terms of training new talent, and a lot of their graduates have gone on to buy stations. We know access to capital is a problem. We’ve had “access to capital” programs here at the FCC, and the NAB had their first one not so long ago, recognizing that that is a challenge.

So where there are issues and challenges, the FCC, the industry, Congress should be unapologetically targeting ways to ensure that those who want to be new entrants have at least a fighting chance.

That’s why I don’t give myself an “A.” Because I know we can do a better job of ensuring we have the data to make the right choices, coming up with creative alternatives to encourage more opportunities.

We’re doing so on the broadband side, we’re doing so on all the other silos; why not here in radio?