Fighting the Corporate Takeover of America's Media

My kids love Top 40 radio, and over time we have relinquished more and more time in the car to their demands to hear the same tired playlist over and over. To their delight, when we travel to see relatives on the East Coast, they can listen to an identical station, and even the same DJs, playing the same handful of sound-alike songs in a different time zone.

Such is the miracle of corporate consolidation.

I've given up, for now, trying to explain to the kids why I think local college stations, listener-supported community radio, and public radio are so much better. I know I sound like the teacher in a Charlie Brown cartoon, as I drone on about the soullessness of corporate programming, about the sameness of the sound-alike boy bands and the synthesizer tracks and auto-tune that wear a hole in my brain.

I just keep my eyes on the road and wait 'til they're out of the car to turn off Pitbull and Ke$ha, "you're going down . . ."

So it was with a sense of relief and instant recognition that I heard former FCC commissioner Michael Copps talking about the way radio consolidation has wiped out cultural richness and regional music on the radio all over the country.

And it's not just radio. It's television, cable, and now the Internet that are going down, if we don't do something to stop the consolidated corporate monster from swallowing up every communication in the United States.

Get ready for more corporate homogenization if the new Comcast-Time Warner Cable deal goes through.

"This proposed deal runs roughshod over competition and consumer choice and is an affront to the public interest," says Michael Copps, the only FCC commissioner to vote against Comcast's merger with NBC/Universal in 2011.

That last merger, he said at the time, “opens the door to the cable-ization of the open Internet.”

The current deal would turn Comcast into a "colossus," letting it push out competitors, and leaving consumers exposed to continuing price hikes and declining service.

And that's just one issue Copps is worried about.

Copps is a hero to people who care about media and the public interest.

When he left the FCC last year after more than a decade, instead of cashing in on his many corporate contacts, Copps went to work with Common Cause and Free Press to fight for a more democratic media.

Right now, he is traveling the country, urging citizens to contact their representatives in Congress, as well as the FCC, to stop the give-away of the Internet to corporate interests, who will quickly turn it into one big Top 40 radio wasteland.

"This is a critical time," Copps told The Progressive's editors during a recent visit to our offices.

The new FCC chairman, Tom Wheeler, will soon decide how to respond to a court decision that invalidated FCC rules that would have protected the open Internet.

The far-reaching court decision allowed that Internet providers should be able to block access to particular sites for any reason. Magazines like The Progressive, Copps warns, could see local Internet providers block access to our web site just because they don't like our politics.

But the court left the door open for the FCC to assert its authority to treat the Internet as a telecommunications concern.

Copps is urging citizens to write to the FCC and tell the commission that the Internet should be classified as telecommunications, giving the FCC broad authority to regulate it.

Some opponents of regulation have characterized that possibility as a power grab, or "the nuclear option."

But Copps calls it a "mild reassertion of oversight."

"The FCC has been absent without leave from public interest oversight for years," Copps says. "Once upon a time there was an FCC," he adds wryly.

In the late 1930s, President Roosevelt put the FCC on a mission to break up media ownership and create the National Broadcasting Company. The Red Scare took a bite out of that effort.

Now it's time to revive the national debate about the public interest and the airwaves.

After all, as advertising revenues collapse, "it's not clear there's a model to support journalism," Copps points out.

"We need to look at alternatives," Copps says, including public broadcasting, nonprofit media, low-power radio, community media, in addition to stopping corporate consolidation.

"It's not the laws of nature or the hand of God that created our media system," Copps says. "It was public policy."

It's time for the FCC to take seriously its public policy role again.

Copps sees hope for a major media reform movement in the crowds that come out to see him, and in letter-writing campaigns that have stopped some potentially bad FCC decisions.

But the public needs to understand what's a stake.

Because the FCC made the mistake of deregulating broadband in the early 2000s, companies can now slow down traffic, block sites entirely, favor their own businesses or news, and give better access to the people they shake down for higher fees.

There is hope that Tom Wheeler will take on the telecommunications companies that skirt monopoly rules through joint sales agreements that allow them to run every news outlet in town without technically owning them all.

Other ownership and spectrum sales issues this year will drastically affect the tiny handful of minority-owned media companies.

It would be a bold move if the FCC took on the big telecommunications companies.

The big companies are keeping an eye on Wheeler, as are the grassroots activists who want an open Internet.

"These are technical problems," says Copps. "But the implications are not technical at all. They have tremendous small-d democratic implications."

What the FCC is deciding in the next year boils down to: "What rights do you have as a consumer on the Internet? Do you control your own experience?" Copps says. "Are we going to have the resources to inform ourselves? to finance journalism? to finance the public interest?"

The other issue Copps wants people to know about is the FCC's ability to regulate political ads.

While it would not overturn Citizens United, the FCC could require disclosure of the sponsors of political ads, which would go a long way toward informing voters about who is spending heavily to influence the outcome of elections.

"It doesn't solve the problem of big money in politics, but it at least shines a light on who is running these ads," says Copps.

And the FCC could begin requiring it within 90 days--in plenty of time for the 2014 and 2016 elections.

Senator Ted Cruz was so worried that Tom Wheeler might invoke the FCC's authority to regulate political ads, he threatened that Wheeler would not be confirmed if he chose to go down that road.

Of the Internet decisions being made this year, Copps says: "To let it go down the same road as radio, TV, and cable would be a tragedy of historic proportions."
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