Monday, March 19, 2007

Local Effort seizing on rare opportunity for broadcast media reform

NOTE: This article was published in the latest issue of The Bridge, vol 2/num 4, Spring 07 (available at Cyber Cafe West and other places)

By PMC Staff

Once every eight years, a major event happens. Television station license renewal is a time when local broadcasters must ask the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to renew their operating license.

For most cities around America, not a sound is heard of it. Not a peep from the newspapers, no sound from the radio stations, and of course very little in broadcast television news.

But Binghamton is different! And you can help!

Theoretically, this is a time when representatives of local community groups can inform the broadcast channel's General Manager of changes they would like to make in programming.

A PTA group could ask for better educational programming. A group of parents could ask for a ban on direct-advertising to children. A minor political party can ask for better coverage of their candidates on the news. Different minority populations can ask for better role models, from ethnic groups to religious groups, from queer folk to immigrants; from prisoners to potheads. Another group could ask for a music show featuring local artists. A local ethical society could ask for a locally produced public affairs show on philosophy. A local high school could ask for coverage of their football games.

There is no shortage of channels. Binghamton has four major broadcast television stations and nearly 3000 broadcast hours per month: WSKG-46/PBS (owned by a local non-profit), WBNG-12 CBS (owed by Granite Broadcasting), WICZ-40/Fox (owned by Stainless Broadcasting), WIVT-34/ABC (owned by Clear Channel). Additionally, there are a couple of low power stations, like WBGH-20/NBC (also owned by Clear Channel).

So do the various community groups do to get involved? The process has not been well documented until now. Groups like Free Press -- founded by media scholar Robert McChesney, and the Media Empowerment Project have now begun to produce materials which aim to educate the public on how to file Petitions to Deny with the FCC. This is the formal way for a citizen or group to object to a license renewal.

The process begins with a Community Needs Assessment. This should be a survey of a broad cross-section of the population. Are you happy with various aspects of local broadcast television? Is it serving the public interest? Are there things you constantly see which you find objectionable? Are there things you don't see which you would like? How do you feel about the fact that these corporate owners, in the search for greater profits, have killed off nearly all local productions in favor of satellite-distributed content for a national audience?

However, these needs assesments are rarely performed.

Here in Greater Binghamton, we are lucky to have A L Postula, a student from Goddard College, living here. During March and April of this year, she will be performing such a community needs assessment of this area as part of her independent studies program.

She will be coordinating a massive distribution of these surveys. A target of 5-10,000 will be printed and distributed, with a goal of getting 1,000 returned. These forms will be available at coffee shops, health food stores, churches, health clinics, and public libraries. There will also be an on-line way to complete the survey, and some poor neighborhoods will be canvassed by volunteers. “We are even hoping local broadcasters to assist in informing the public of this survey”, says Postula.

"We are targeting an N-size of 1,000, which means the number of surveys returned", says Postula. "This may seem like a lot, but a larger population will give us higher confidence in our results."

The survey area will be anywhere in Western NY or Northeast PA who can receive these broadcast channels over the air, or on cable.

This study will be important for several reasons. First, no other study like this has ever been performed. Second, the results of this survey can be used by our community to negotiate for better public-service programming. Third, this survey -- which will be scrutinized by academic advisors, both locally and at Goddard, as to the validity of the methods used -- can serve as a model to other communities around America as to how to improve performance of local broadcasters.

The survey will focus on several subject areas: commercials, political races, children views, violence, local news, other local broadcasting (entertainment and public affairs), and images of women, and various minority groups.

Once the survey is complete in mid-April, the results will be codified, and a report will be generated. The report will demonstrate if there is a disparity between what viewers are getting, vs. what their needs are.

This report can then be used by local community groups to approach the General Manager of each local broadcaster, and attempt to negotiate a “Citizen’s Agreement”. This is an official document which is entered into the FCC-mandated public file, which can be inspected by anyone during normal business hours. This is essentially a contract which the broadcaster makes to the community, which promises to fulfill a community need.

Depending on what the survey reveals, the station could agree, say, to produce a one hour show each week featuring local people speaking about issues of interest to African-Americans, Asians, immigrants, and other ethnic minorities. Or, they might agree to create a local show featuring local musicians. Or, they could agree to run children’s programming commercial free. Or it could be a show about working people, or a show about women’s issues.

If the station agrees, then the community benefits by the programming changes. If the station does not agree, then the group could file a formal complaint with the FCC, and ask that the license not be renewed.

These actions are taken very seriously by the FCC, and by the stations involved. With the community needs assessment, a very strong case can be made.

This is an exiting time for living our area! Please seek out a survey, fill it out, and return it before April 13th. If you have any questions, please contact

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