The Loss of Airwave Democracy
PORTLAND, Maine - Localism, like many isms, means different things to different people. This was apparent Thursday night in the auditorium of a Maine high school.
The Federal Communications Commission held a hearing at Portland High School to find out what the public thought of how well broadcasters are serving their community. If the two Republican and two Democratic commissioners were not listening closely, they heard a mixed message. Maine's broadcasters did a fantastic job getting their employees, station managers and charitable organizations to testify to their hyper-local identities. The other half of the nearly 200 people that drifted in and out of the auditorium were clearly disgusted with the local offerings on the airwaves.
I hope the commissioners heard what I heard, and interpret localism in media as I do. Localism is the benchmark by which most of America's media should be judged. Broadcasters and newspapers should have a vigilant journalistic mission at their core. The drift away from the traditional function of the press becomes swift without this core. If the commissioners did hear what I did, then they will go back to Washington, D.C., worried about broadcasting in Maine, which is in the same tattered condition as the rest of the country.
Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, a Democrat, was expecting what was to come from the broadcasters.
"I want to know whether broadcasters are integrated into the activities of local communities, whether their coverage is serving your local community needs and how they can better serve you. This is much more than Toys-for-Tots or the annual blood drive, as important as these initiatives are," he said in his opening remarks.
The broadcasters' testimony must have been a disappointment to Adelstein. Almost to a person, the broadcasters - who wore blue buttons touting their $50 million-plus raised for charity - talked about their charitable work.
The degradation of local news as a result of corporate chain ownership was glaringly apparent. If the station managers could talk about their stellar newscasts, they would have. They did not.
Working with charities is important for any company involved with its community. For media outlets, charitable work should be part of the mission, not the focus. Television, radio and newspapers better serve a community when journalism is the foundation from which all actions emanate.
The FCC's selection of Portland as one of six hearings on localism was a good choice. I used to work as a reporter and editor at the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram. Mainers, I learned, are more concerned about localism in every industry than any place else I have lived.
The ferocity of those who testified that Maine's airwaves are a shadow of what used to be was movingly genuine. Person after person talked about how radio stations were a vital part of community discussion, a place where debates were aired. This changed in the late 1990s after the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which allowed for a single company to own numerous radio stations in a market.
The voids in local programming have been filled in some areas by community radio. Even though these are valuable additions, the market is hurt when commercial radio gives up on original reporting.
Democracy is weakened when these jobs disappear. Radio and television news used to have full-time reporters in state capitals and city halls. No longer is this the case, which was made clear by Malcolm Leary, a reporter with Maine Capitol News. He pointed out that he is the only radio reporter left in Augusta, the state capital.
What I heard above the din of good works was that broadcast localism is lost in Maine. What I heard was a thirst for journalism that casts a skeptical eye on government, journalism that unflinchingly investigates, journalism that reflects its community.
Commercial radio and television have veered sharply from their local roots. No amount of charitable work can hide what listeners and viewers seek - and deserve.
Ryan Blethen's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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