(By Mike McVay) Radio has faced many different forms of competition over the years. In our more than 100 years of existence, we’ve seen FM listening overwhelm AM listening. Physical music collections from 8-track to cassette to CD. HD variations, that offer more choices are available on most new in-auto systems. Satellite radio, WIFI allowing in-home or in-car streaming, Bluetooth allowing one to listen to their personal phone through the car or home system, smart speakers making audio convenient and podcasting, are all competing for a share of listening.
It’s very possible that the biggest competition exists from DSP’s, with Podcasting, Video and social media close behind. None of those competitors are regulated by the United States Government and they’re not saddled with what they can or cannot deliver to a potential audience. I’m not suggesting that deregulation alone will reverse radios degradation of the product and the continual, albeit slow, erosion of audience listening levels. I am saying that it’s time for the FCC to loosen the reins on what radio can and cannot do and allow the legacy medium to compete. Why are broadcasters regulated and our competitors are not?
Please note that I’m not suggesting we eliminate the Federal Communications Commission. The debacle of 5G and its possible interference with airplane altimeters is reason enough to continue to support the FCC. Same for the need for the Emergency Activation System. Alerts regarding weather emergency’s, Amber Alerts, and the potential for a need to alert Americans of an impending attack support the need to keep the EAS. Although, thankfully, we’ve not had a real need for such alerts since the Cuban Missile Crisis of the 60s.
It’s not that I would expect owners & operators to air fewer commercials, hire more local air-talent, or be more committed to furthering local charities. Which is, by the way, what they should do. What I do expect is that companies can then own their licenses and not simply have the use of a government granted license for a limited number of years. Increasing ownership limits in a market would allow those who are financially strapped to exit a market and others to grow their footprint, which should increase revenue, overall.
Think for a moment about the legalization of Marijuana in some states? Because radio and television stations are licensed federally, there is a fear to air such local advertising messages, regardless of it being legal in the state. Until it becomes federally legal, or the FCC acknowledges local law has precedence, most broadcasters will remain hesitant to take this advertising.
Eliminating some of the FCC rules would allow broadcasters to be more aggressive in what can be said when enabling the “Safe Harbor” hours to be less “safe.” The community, and the audience, will decide what’s appropriate or not to be said on a program. It may mean that manufacturers would add Parental Controls to radios, bit how is that different than what you can do on other devices?
Equal time would no longer be required when it comes to political candidates. Charging the lowest rate to a political candidate would not be the set fee that you must charge a politician. Endorsing a candidate wouldn’t bring special disclosures with it. It wouldn’t be necessary to say “Sponsored by …” when airing purchased airtime, especially when the wording of the disclosure is required to be so specific, that broadcasters are frequently fined for what appears to be a nuisance.
You wouldn’t be required to air station identification at the top of the hour. Why do we even have call-letters when most stations use a brand name? Some years ago, while visiting with consulting clients of mine in New Zealand, I asked the Market Manager of the station I was consulting (which used a station name/frequency) what their call letters were. The manager responded “I don’t know. We have some, but there’s no rule to use them, so I don’t remember them.”
The concept that I’m putting forward is not to suggest that we, as broadcasters, should be less responsible, less aware of the audience and those around them, nor am I suggesting that we stop serving our communities. We have an obligation to sponsors that we need to continue to honor. We sell what they want us to sell. We don’t sell air-time. We sell services, products, beverages, food, lifestyle and a sense of purpose. Emergency broadcasting remains important, as do the alerts that accompany EAS, and those services should not go away.
What I am suggesting is that many of the rules that we abide by were created in a time when Over-The-Air radio and Over-The-Air television were all that there was, besides newspapers, to receive daily news and to receive communication from the government. Electronic media is diverse and readily available today. It’s on-demand. The options available are numerous, and competition will grow every year, with choices multiplying every year. It stands to reason that time spent listening is going to continue to erode. It also stands to reason that no modern-day medium will have the reach that radio once had, because of those many choices.
The government, as reported several weeks ago by Radio Ink, is making technical changes that include the removal of the maximum rated transmitter power limit for AM stations, updating the section regarding signal strength contour overlap requirements and amending the definition of “AM fill-in area.” Improving the OTA signal of AM stations is welcome, but we’re entering an era where more and more audio listening is online, and it is imaginable that the day isn’t far off when we’ll no longer need transmitters and towers to be heard. Which then raises the question “do we just wait for that to happen?”
The government has already eliminated the Main Studio Rule, relaxed the need for public files and community ascertainment and it’s been decades since someone actually took a transmitter reading. Loosening the grip of the Federal Communications Commission regarding ownership, content rules, license renewal, equal time, political rates, simulcasting and sponsorship identification won’t give radio a large advantage. It will help to level the playing field … a little bit.
Mike McVay is President of McVay Media and can be reached at [email protected]