FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr favors scrapping the current local radio ownership limits. During a virtual meeting with Cooley law firm partner and former FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell Monday, Carr was asked how the agency can give broadcasters relief during the pandemic.
Specifically, McDowell asked what could the agency do outside of the perennial “quadrennial” review of media rules, given that “radio is taking it on the chin” ad-wise. Currently the issue is before a federal appeals court, according to Carr. He said: “We’ll see when those things come down from the court,” however, he added the radio limits “really struck me.”
He mentioned visiting a local station recently in Cody, WY that was airing local programming and “serving its community.” That contrasted with a different station in a nearby town where the station was locked. When he finally got in, Carr said there was a Dell laptop “pumping out music piped-in” from a big city.
People want to purchase the second station and invest in it, according to Carr, but the local ownership limits prevent that. “Your jaw just hits the floor when you see something like that. We’ve got to get rid of these rules that…don’t reflect today.”
The rules were last revised in the 1996 Telecommunications Act based on market size. Radio is now competing with audio services like Pandora for ad dollars, Carr said, adding that now, some 80 to 90 percent of audio advertising has shifted to online platforms. As the agency updates rules or eliminates those no longer needed, Carr said he believes the local radio ownership limits need to be reformed, but said the public record needs to be refreshed before he’d commit to it.
The Commissioner also talked up the upcoming ATSC3.0 vote the agency will take up later this month. He calls the next-gen television transmission technology “broadcast internet.” Think of it like a broadband download pipe, he explained. “Rather than using a one-to-one cell-based spectrum” to update maps in an autonomous vehicle, for example, ATSC 3.0 could be used to update all the maps in a fleet of autonomous cars in a market at once. “We will vote on a ruling that removes some of the regulatory uncertainty for this service,” Carr said.
Finally, asked whether the pandemic could extend the July 3 deadline for completion of the broadcast repack, Carr said: “Hats off to the tower crews engaged in this monumental effort.” He called it a huge undertaking with crews using “massive helicopter cranes” pulling old antennas off towers and swapping those out with larger ones as stations change channels.
The pandemic has delayed construction “of a minority” of station facility construction, according to McDowell. “I would anticipate we would take this into account,” Carr replied, but added he hasn’t had a chance to speak with the Chairman about the issue, and had “no news to share.”
Carr did say he’d like to participate in one of those helicopter antenna lifts one day.
By Leslie Stimson, Inside Towers Washington Bureau Chief