Nicholas Johnson was distressed by what he was hearing on the radio as he stopped at greasy spoons and filling stations as he traveled the flatlands of the Midwest. This was in the 1970s, after he'd completed his term leading the Federal Communications Commission.
The broadcast unnerved him. Stirring commentaries by the actor-turned-governor, Ronald Reagan, breached, he believed, the "fairness doctrine" that required equal air time for the two main political parties. Johnson's warnings to the Democratic National Committee fell on deaf ears, he felt. He wasn't surprised by the ascent years later of talk radio and the orator who had impressed him.
Everything heard on the radio or seen on television is influenced, to some extent, by decisions made on the eighth floor of a sterile office tower a few blocks south of the Mall in Washington, the home of the FCC.
Tomorrow, the commission will vote on, and likely approve, the most sweeping change in a generation in the rules that govern media power.
Although the commission's work, to many, is mysterious and remote from daily life, for seven decades it has been at the root of what you hear when you switch on the radio or television: all the sex talk on Friends when the children are still awake at 8 p.m., the "infomercial," the copycat versions of instant hit shows such as Survivor and American Idol, the rise of Rush Limbaugh. Though they may not look alike, the children of the airwaves all share a little DNA from the FCC.
Many large media companies and their supporters have lobbied for the pending rule changes that would allow them to own two or three TV stations in a single town or larger combinations of TV, newspaper and radio outlets.
A few dozen exceptions exist, from Tampa, Fla., to Los Angeles, in which a company owns two top TV stations or combines one with a daily newspaper, but most of those date from 30 years ago, before the FCC rules.
The companies say that making it easier for them to buy media outlets would allow them to bundle advertising, share news content and compete more effectively with new media such as the Internet, cable and satellite TV.
One of the leading proponents is Tribune Co. of Chicago, which owns The Sun among its 11 newspapers, 26 TV stations, four radio stations, numerous Web sites, part of the WB network and the Chicago Cubs baseball team.
Critics contend that the FCC plans to swing the pendulum too far, allowing too much power in the hands of a relative few multimedia conglomerates. They contend that nonlocal owners have less stake in the affairs of the communities where they own news outlets and that a decline in the number of owners upsets the delicate balance of diverse viewpoints in a democracy.
A majority of the five-member commission apparently thinks the media companies' view is correct. Chairman Michael K. Powell is expected to lead the group's Republican majority over two Democrats who have publicly opposed the plan. Some members of Congress have vowed to try to roll back the FCC's move, and lawsuits are likely.
The debate won't end here - and didn't start here.
The FCC was born 70 years ago this month, partly out of fears of the awesome might of the invention of Italian engineer Guglielmo Marconi, the radio. Concerns grew as politicians increased their prowess with the medium, culminating in the effective "fireside chats" of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s and 1940s.
The conflicts between freedom of speech and managing broadcasters flared in 1938 when the public was panicked by reports of a "Martian invasion" that turned out to be a dramatic radio adaptation of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds by actor Orson Welles. After an investigation, the FCC decided not to punish the stations that carried the show.
A second network
The rise of television created new concerns about electronic influence. The FCC required the new National Broadcasting Company - NBC - to sell one of its two radio networks, the Red and the Blue.
Edward J. Noble, who made a fortune with Life Savers after buying the rights to the candy concept for $2,900, grasped the potential of television. He bought the Blue network for $8 million in 1938. It became the American Broadcasting Company, ABC.
Some maneuvers took years to affect what viewers were seeing.
Sen. John W. Bricker, an Ohio Republican, pushed for a major investigation of the networks in the mid-1950s after CBS journalist Edward R. Murrow focused his See It Now program on Bricker's bill to alter presidential treaty powers. The investigation led the networks to farm out more of their programming to independent producers.