WASHINGTON -- Under pressure from Congress and amid internal disagreement, members of the Federal Communications Commission are moving away from a staff proposal that would have greatly increased the number of radio stations a single company may own, industry executives and congressional aides said yesterday.
The retreat marks a setback for the hawkishly deregulatory agenda of the FCC chairman, Alfred C. Sikes. He has argued that current station-ownership restrictions are obsolete and have contributed to the depression afflicting much of the radio industry.
Mr. Sikes has begun a separate proceeding to consider relaxing ownership rules for television stations, an issue that is even more hotly debated.
He strongly supports radical changes recommended several weeks ago by the agency's mass media bureau that would virtually eliminate a long-standing rule that bars a single company from owning more than 12 AM and 12 FM radio stations nationwide. The proposal would also significantly relax a rule that now bars a company from owning more than one AM and one FM station in one city.
But Mr. Sikes has been unable to obtain the three-vote majority he needs on the five-member commission.
With a commission vote scheduled for tomorrow, and a Senate hearing on the issue set for next Wednesday, the commissioners struggled yesterday to reach a compromise.
An FCC staff aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the commissioners appeared likely to agree on a rule that would raise nationwide ownership limits to about 25 AM and 25 FM stations.
Industry lobbyists said the commissioners also were discussing a rule that would limit a company to owning 45 FM and 50 AM stations nationwide and as many as three AM and three FM stations in large cities with at least 35 stations on the air.
But some commissioners are said to favor limiting companies to 25 or 30 stations nationwide and no more than two AM and two FM stations in each market.
As an independent regulatory agency, the FCC has the authority to change the ownership limits. But Congress, subject to a presidential veto, can pass legislation that overrides agency rules, and key Democrats in Congress who support continued restrictions have threatened to do just that.
Among the leading opponents of any sweeping change is Rep. John D. Dingell, D-Mich., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, who has signaled his strong opposition to many compromises being discussed.
"It would be a train wreck," said a House aide who follows the issue. "It would absolutely guarantee a confrontation with Congress."
Commissioners Andrew C. Barrett, Ervin S. Duggan and James H. Quello have pressed for more moderate changes than those Mr. Sikes favored. Only one commissioner, Sherrie P. Marshall, has sided with the chairman.
"It appears as though they are leaning to a compromise that would be more modest than what the mass media bureau proposed," said Jeff Baumann, general counsel for the National Association of Broadcasters.
He said his group favors a significant easing of ownership rules but said broadcasters recognize the government's interest in preserving a diversity in local radio markets.
Broadcasters are likely to be satisfied if the FCC raises the national limits to 45 or 50 AM and FM stations and relaxes the rules on local ownership to allow a company to own two AM and two FM stations in a single market.
Group W-Westinghouse Broadcasting, which owns a combination of 17 AM and FM stations, proposed that the FCC make changes that were much less sweeping than those proposed by the agency's staff. In a filing last year, Group W suggested that the nationwide limits be raised to 25 AM and 25 FM stations, and that a company be allowed to own no more than two AM and two FM stations in a single market.
FCC officials would not comment on the issue, but one staff member at the agency said there was never much chance that commissioners would agree on the proposal floated several weeks ago.
"I don't think anybody ever saw that as the final cut," he said.
Congressional pressure may have changed the vote count at the commission. Mr. Sikes and Mr. Quello met recently with Mr. Dingell and Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., who is chairman of the subcommittee that oversees the FCC
Several congressional aides said Mr. Quello, a former radio broadcaster in Detroit, was troubled when Mr. Dingell objected to the proposal to overhaul the rules.
The ownership rules, adopted in the 1950s, are intended to prevent too much concentration of power in the industry and encourage a wide number of independent radio outlets in each community.
But many radio stations, particularly smaller ones, have been struggling simply to survive in the last several years.