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Editorial: The Move-In Mavens

As we accelerate down the highway toward New Administrationville (ETA: Jan. 20), another thing we may see receding in the rearview mirror is the FM move-in trade.

As we accelerate down the highway toward New Administrationville (ETA: Jan. 20), another thing we may see receding in the rearview mirror is the FM move-in trade.

We’re all familiar with that industry, which has been particularly active for a decade or two. Move-in mavens study the table of channels as it has evolved over the last 40 to 50 years. Using a number of regulatory tricks of the trade, they are able to come up with alternate allotment schemes that have the salutary (for some, at least) effect of moving channels from less populous areas to more populous — and, thus, more commercially viable — circumstances.

But Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein — the FCC Democrats who will, with the next chairman, control the FCC now — recently strongly criticized the move-in process as a “parlor game,” the sole goal of which is maximization of available advertising dollars.

They bemoaned the resulting loss of local service to smaller, more rural communities (whence the moved-in channels came), and suggested that the Federal Communications Commission should enforce its rules and policies more strictly in order to comply with Section 307(b), which mandates generally that the FCC shall provide “a fair, efficient, and equitable distribution” of radio channels to the various states and communities.

Messrs. Copps/Adelstein are correct to some degree. Licensees don’t subject themselves to the time, effort, expense and overall hassle of a move-in unless it makes economic sense to them.

But they tend to overlook the fact that even the most egregious jump from a rural to an urban market invariably increases the “efficient” use of the spectrum by assuring that the subject channel will be available to a larger audience. Moreover, the FCC’s rules and policies prohibit the removal of a community’s only local radio station, protecting any community from total abandonment. And at bottom, each separate move-in proposal features its own unique attributes that must be assayed.

So the scorn that Copps and Adelstein have heaped on move-ins feels unwarranted.

But this really comes down to a matter of perspective, of frame of reference. Copps and Adelstein are looking at the issue through their own particular lens of localism, a lens that tends to focus exclusively (or nearly exclusively) on the availability of “local” programming for every town, large or small.

That is certainly not the only lens, nor is it necessarily the most accurate lens, through which to assess move-ins. Indeed, given the statutory and constitutional constraints on the commission, it is not even a realistic lens. Regardless of where the commission may plunk down a channel, it cannot dictate the programming that will be aired on that channel.

Nevertheless, the lens of localism is the one that Copps and Adelstein use. And if the new chairman or -woman chooses to use the same lens, move-in mavens could find it much more difficult to work their magic in the coming months and years.

— Radio World