FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said the time was right to eliminate the main studio rule — but not first without sharing her concerns somewhat chastising broadcasters for their desire to cut that local cord of connection.
While the main studio rule was designed to encourage community dialog and connection, today the availability of electronic communication enables members the community to interact with their broadcast radio and television stations in different ways.
It was that acknowledgement that led the Federal Communications Commission commissioner to support the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that was released by the commission at the May 18 FCC Open Meeting.
But not without reservations.
“For years you’ve heard me speak about the unique role broadcasters play in local communities,” she said, pointing to previous Congressional testimony from National Association of Broadcasters Pres. Gordon Smith who focused on the importance of localism for every broadcaster. “So I find it perplexing that those very same broadcasters are advocating to absolve themselves from maintaining local roots in their community of license,” she said.
“A broadcaster’s main studio is often the only physical tie to a community … and when it comes to radio, that physical presence means they actually know and are experiencing and are interacting firsthand with what their listeners want and need to hear,” she said. “By tentatively proposing to eliminate the commission’s main studio rule, however, it seems to me that we are embracing a world in which automated national programming is the new normal.”
While Clyburn said she understands the challenges facing stations — particularly struggling stations in small- and mid-sized markets — the industry should think hard about the ramifications of eliminating the rule. With a public file only now accessible online, members of the public have one less reason to visit a station’s main studio, she said. “And yes, a local or toll-free telephone number is a good thing. But if nobody is there to answer that call [at a local station] and the only option is to leave a voicemail, how often will that voice system be checked, when will that call be returned, and who is going to report if, heaven forbid, there is, say, a train derailment,” she said, referring to a January 2002 train derailment outside of Minot, N.D. That incident has often been cited as an example of the dangers of media consolidation because no live radio announcer was at the station to warn citizens of the emergency.
Based on her concerns, the current NPRM includes additional questions about exactly how station might communicate time-sensitive or emergency information to the public under these proposed changes, and whether a station’s phone number should be staffed during the hours in which that station is on the air.
The NPRM also includes questions on what impact elimination of this rule would have on LPFM and noncommercial stations.
While she remains skeptical about moving forward with an outright elimination of this rule, she said the NPRM should help the industry build a wholesome record on the issue, and she voted to approve the NPRM.
Commissioner Michael O’Rielly was blunter with his assessment, saying that the old rationale for maintaining the rule has dissolved, and the rule shouldn’t be left in place for those looking to create a “gotcha” scenario for broadcast licensees.
Chairman Ajit Pai concurred, quoting a Minnesota broadcaster who said the rule has outlived its usefulness. “He added he would like to build out his construction permit for an AM station in a nearby town but that main studio rule, as he put it, is a killer,” Pai said. “The cost to maintain staff, it would simply make the construction of this facility a ticket of doom.”
“The proceeding we begin today could grant this broadcaster and all others affected by the rule the flexibility to use their limited resources in a way that best serves their local communities,” Pai said.