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Pai Chief of Staff: “The FCC Shouldn’t Be Your Enemy”

Speaking to Michigan broadcasters, Matthew Berry also said look for action on AM soon

Movement on AM revitalization may indeed be just around the corner, according to an aide to Commissioner Ajit Pai. His Chief of Staff Matthew Berry also had critical words for FCC regulatory philosophy, saying its approach to broadcasting has been “rather curious.” He said that in areas where broadcasters support loosening regulatory requirements, “the commission opposes doing so,” but in areas where broadcasters oppose relaxing regulation, “the commission supports it.”

Speaking before a Michigan Association of Broadcasters advocacy conference in Bellaire, Mich., Berry spoke about ongoing efforts that his boss has made in connection to AM, and suggested that more concrete news is on the way. This follows a post last week in which Chairman Tom Wheeler promised action on the revitalization issue.

Berry said Wheeler has formally circulated an item addressing revitalization for a commission vote. Pai’s office is reviewing the item, Berry said. Pai has long made revitalization a priority, Berry said, pointing to the commissioner’s initial efforts in 2012 to look at issues dragging down licensees on the dial. “It had been over two decades since the FCC had last comprehensively reviewed its AM radio rules, and the band’s difficulties had substantially increased since the early 1990s. But AM radio is worth saving,” he said, citing AM’s strength in providing critical news, fostering diversity in ownership and promoting localism.

Pai’s office has called for modifications such as eliminating the ratchet rule. Pai also proposed that a window be opened for more AM broadcasters to obtain FM translators, something Wheeler has been hesitant about in public comments.

While Berry did not comment on specific details within the item, he urged broadcasters in attendance to make their voice heard. “If you have an idea for ameliorating the AM band’s technical challenges, now is the time to weigh in,” he said. “If you have a long-term solution for securing AM radio’s future, now is the time to share it. … It is critical that the FCC gets it right in the item that is currently in front of us. Who knows when we will have another chance.”

Berry also said, bluntly, that the FCC should not be seen as an enemy to broadcasting.

“We believe that the FCC should seek to create a regulatory environment that allows the broadcasting industry to thrive and enables you to do what you do best,” he said. “That means we should modernize our rules to update or eliminate regulations that no longer make sense. It means we should promote regulatory parity between broadcasting and other industries. And it means that issues of concern to broadcasters shouldn’t be ignored.” He said that in speaking to broadcasters from around the country, “I’ve heard the same things over and over again. Many feel that the FCC doesn’t care about the future of the broadcasting industry. Others believe that the commission is actively trying to undermine that future. And still others, when speaking about the FCC, use language that, if said on the air between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., could trigger an indecency fine.”

Pai, a Republican appointee, has often been at odds with Wheeler and other Democratic commissioners on key issues. “Our office believes that the invisible hand of the free market is generally a better guarantor of consumer welfare than the clumsy fist of government,” Berry said. “On the whole, our preference is for less regulation.”

Berry also touched on a plan to modernize contest rules, also in circulation with the commissioners, and he reinforced Pai support for elimination of the FCC newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rule, which Berry called “a relic from another era.” He also criticized actions recently on the incentive auction, particularly lamenting potential interference issues that could arise because of decisions made in reference to the 600 MHz band and duplex gap.

Read Berry’s remarks (PDF).

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