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Grassroots backlash reaches all the way to FCC; Clear Channel watch out!

In the wake of Congress's overwhelming rejection of the FCC's deregulation of media cross-ownership rules, some public interest advocates are now smelling blood, and going for the jugular against the big bad media conglomerates like Clear Channel that they see at the heart of the evils of antidemocratic media consolidation. And most surprisingly: they're getting a hearing inside the FCC itself. Clear Channel: watch out!
Media Activists Feeling Feisty
Might Try to Block License Renewals

by David Ranii

National media watchdog groups, flush with their success in stalling consolidation-friendly media ownership rules, are contemplating trying to block some TV and radio stations across the country from renewing their broadcast licenses.

Copps said the meetings will give citizens a forum to express opinions on whether broadcasters are serving the public interest, as required , and therefore deserve to have their licenses renewed.

And a new initiative by FCC Commissioner Michael Copps to conduct a series of hearings across the country -- including, most likely, one in North Carolina this fall -- could play into their plans.

Copps said the meetings will give citizens a forum to express opinions on whether broadcasters are serving the public interest, as required , and therefore deserve to have their licenses renewed.

Media groups believe the hearings could trigger challenges to some license renewals at the grass-roots level.

"You can be sure that the Copps hearings will spur local activists," said Josh Silver, managing director of Free Press, a public interest group in Massachusetts. "Stay tuned. It is going to happen."

A hearing in North Carolina would be timely, as the licenses of the state's radio stations expire Dec. 1. The licenses of TV stations in the state expire Dec. 1, 2004.

In a telephone interview, Copps said the hearings would enable the public to convey their frustrations, but added, "I'm not just interested in a pleasant conversation on localism. I'm looking to compile a record that could be used now in license renewal."

A potential local target is WDCG-FM G105, one of five Triangle stations owned by Clear Channel Communications of San Antonio, Texas. The station has come under attack from listeners and advertisers this week after Bob Dumas of the "Bob and Madison Show" said he hated seeing bicycle riders on the road and laughed at stories about motorists running cyclists down.

"If I could be of any use at any FCC hearings, I would certainly be happy to participate," said Blanche E. Dean of Durham, captain of a local cycling team called the Msfits. "[G105's] license is up for renewal Dec. 1. We would like to see that not happen."

Although Copps wants to have a hearing in North Carolina, one here is not definite, as he is trying to have all five Federal Communications Commissioners participate.

However, if the hearings aren't endorsed by all of the commissioners, Copps would be willing to go it alone. He and fellow Democrat Jonathan Adelstein conducted hearings earlier this year -- including one at Duke University in March -- that stoked opposition against the FCC's relaxed media-ownership rules. Those rules, passed by a 3-to-2 vote on June 2, have been stymied by court challenges and efforts in Congress to overturn them.

Clear Channel isn't under attack only in North Carolina.

Essential Information, a public interest group founded by Ralph Nader, recently filed a challenge to Clear Channel's radio licenses in the District of Columbia and three states. The challenge accuses the chain of running deceptive promotions and airing obscene and indecent material.

Jim Donahue, project director for Essential Information, said there are no plans to include Clear Channel's stations in North Carolina and elsewhere in the challenge -- because it's not necessary. "If the FCC did rule in our favor, they would have to revoke all of Clear Channel's licenses," he said.

Andy Levin, senior vice president of government affairs for Clear Channel, said that won't happen.

"I expect the FCC will look at the totality of the circumstances, how our stations are run in the public interest, and renew each one of our stations," he said.

The FCC reviews a station's performance, including whether it is serving the public interest, when licenses come up for renewal. But over the past two decades the agency's oversight has relaxed, and renewals are mostly rubber-stamped. They're known in the industry as "postcard renewals."

Critics complain that as the broadcast industry has consolidated, commitment to the public interest has fallen by the wayside. But Clear Channel's Levin questioned the need for hearings.

"I'm not sure going around the country and having these hearings on the taxpayer's nickel is the best way of going about it," he said.