The FCC and Free Speech

When you think about it for very long, you wonder if there is a good reason that the United States even has a Federal Communications Commission. But with a closer look at the value this important government department adds to our public life, we can get a good perspective on the reasons we need the FCC to be there to provide some guidance for how the public airwaves are used.

The FCC grew out of a need in the early thirties to have a regulatory body to assist with issues relative to the growing radio industry in regards to monopolies on the airwaves and how radio conglomerates were handling relationships with affiliates and employees. So in 1934, Congress passed the Communications Act which expanded the Federal Radio Commission that was already in existence and gave it a wider jurisdiction. The agency that came out of this reorganization and expansion became what we now know as the Federal Communications Commission.

Much of the work of the early FCC was to work to diversify ownership of radio stations and impose some control on the powerful communications conglomerates of NBC and CBS. So the early regulatory activity of the FCC accomplished three improvements in the radio industry…

* In a document issued in 1940 called Report on Chain Broadcasting, the FCC began the work of limiting the growth of conglomerate ownership of telecommunications facilities. It was believed then that diversification of ownership would foster competition and greater creative opportunity in the radio industry.

* The FCC introduced some limits on the extent that the large radio conglomerates could demand time of their affiliates. This control was necessary to establish a cooperative relationship between affiliates and the large networks and cut down on affiliate abuse which was harmful to local markets.

* Finally the FCC stepped in to put significant control over “artist bureaus” by which networks were able to function as both the agents and employers of artists they had under contract. Obviously this was not a situation that resulted in the best interests of the artists.

Notice that in none of these original goals of the FCC was there any jurisdiction over content or public decency implied in its powers or responsibilities. This doesn’t mean that taking an administrative role in the content of what goes out over the nation’s airwaves not a proper use of the FCC. But it is a change from the original charge that was given to the FCC to justify its creation.

The change in focus began in the Reagan administration. It was during this time in our history that much of the oversight of the large media conglomerates were removed. As a result the door was opened for large corporations to own a variety of media outlets and to take possession of a large possession of a majority of a particular media’s outlets which narrowed competition. The outcome was the concentration of ownership of radio stations in the hands of a few large corporations which has lead to a homogenization of that media. But the lifting of tight regulations also has resulted in the explosion of cable television the expansion of options for consumers and the proliferation of talk radio.

It was in the new century when the FCC began to shift its focus toward taking a greater control over content in broadcasting. Many say that it was the super bowl fiasco with Janet Jackson that set off the changes. But leading up to that event, there had already been some notable crackdowns such as greater fines for particularly offensive programs such as the Howard Stern radio broadcast.

It remains to be seen if the FCC will continue to serve as a moderator of content and obscenity in years to come. If that is the direction, there will be some very public discussion over the role of government versus the rights of people under the free speech protection provided by the constitution. But such dialog is healthy in a free society as we continue to redefine how far we will allow the agencies of our government to protect us while using the power of these agencies for the greatest public good.