Studies call one owner of multiple media a bad idea

FCC is urged to tighten, not ease, consolidation rules

October 24, 2006|By Nick Madigan | Nick Madigan,Sun Reporter

A Federal Communications Commission plan to ease restrictions on consolidation of media companies would lead to less local news and fewer choices for radio and television audiences, according to studies released yesterday.

The Benton Foundation and the Social Science Research Council, authors of the studies, concluded that media consolidation does not create better, more local or more diverse media content, as the FCC maintains. For instance, the studies said, a radio company that owns multiple stations in a local market is less likely to offer niche formats such as easy listening, bluegrass, tejano and classical music.

"FCC commission decisions are too often made with insufficient data," Gloria Tristani, a former FCC commissioner and president of the Benton Foundation, told the Associated Press. "These studies strongly suggest that ownership restrictions should be tightened, not relaxed."

The FCC has been re-examining its media ownership regulations, which restrict the number of broadcast outlets and newspapers that a company may own in a particular market. The agency's initial public comment period on the matter ended yesterday, and the studies by the two groups were intended to influence the FCC's deliberations.

The Benton Foundation, based in Washington, says it works to demonstrate the value of communications for solving social problems. The Social Science Research Council, in New York City, is a nonpartisan organization that researches public issues, from media policy to the social impact of HIV/AIDS.

Other groups concurred yesterday, including Consumers Union, the Consumer Federation of America and Free Press.

Gene Kimmelman, a vice president for Consumers Union, said most Americans rely on locally owned television stations and newspapers for local news.

"Cable and Internet are no substitutes," he said.

The groups said that loosening ownership restrictions would result in less local news coverage. Newspapers owned by out-of-town companies do not report many of the stories that matter to a local audience, they said.

Rem Rieder, editor of American Journalism Review, published by the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, said in an interview that media consolidation has not been good for journalism.

"When you get a whole lot of stations owned by one owner, you get a whole lot more ... and more cookie-cutter products," he said. "You're going to lose local character. And certainly that applies when one entity owns several forms of media in one town: You lose the competitiveness that's so important to good journalism."

Rieder said the proliferation of Web sites and bloggers has created an impression that there are sufficient voices in any given community. "But there aren't enough voices that do original reporting," he said.

Joe Hutchins, assistant general manager of WBJC, a noncommercial Baltimore station devoted to classical music, said many such stations around the country have suffered from the corporate ethos of boosting profits. He gave the example of WGMS, a classical music station in Washington that was shunted to a pair of weaker frequencies this year while its coveted spot on the dial, 103.5 FM, was given to WTOP, an all-news station that works in partnership with The Washington Post.

Craig Haslam, a spokesman for Bonneville International, which owns both WGMS and WTOP, said the move made economic sense. "For us, when comparing those stations in the D.C. market, WTOP is our top-performing, top-grossing station among the 31 radio stations we own in six markets across the U.S.," he said.

Hutchins, at WBJC, said niche formats are "squeezed out" because they are not cost-effective.

"That's the effect of consolidation," he said. "No one wants to cater to smaller audiences. There's a feeling out there that the only way to survive in the next couple of decades is to go to talk-radio or news."

Marc Steiner, host of a daily current-events show on WYPR, a National Public Radio affiliate in Baltimore, said that local coverage "does get lost" when out-of-town corporations take over a preponderance of media outlets.

"Locally owned media businesses fund their own local coverage," he said, "but it doesn't necessarily meet the bottom line for a national corporation, so they won't fund it."

nick.madigan@baltsun.com

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