McCain Panel Criticizes New FCC Rules

By: Jennifer C. Kerr, Associated Press Writer

(AP) Senators opposed to new federal rules on media ownership expressed concern Tuesday that the regulations will bring further consolidations that will limit radio listeners’ choices.

They cited the decision by Cumulus Media to bar its dozens of country music stations from playing songs by the Dixie Chicks after the group’s lead singer criticized President Bush over the war with Iraq. Natalie Maines said she was embarrassed to be from the same state as Bush.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said she was stunned by what happened to the Dixie Chicks. It sends “a chilling message to people that they ought to shut up,” she said.

Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., also was critical.

While McCain was offended by the statement from the Dixie Chicks, he said “to restrain their trade because they exercised their right to free speech to me is remarkable … and it’s a strong argument about what media concentration has the possibility of doing.”

Cumulus Media President Lewis Dickey, Jr., whose company owns more than 250 radio stations, defended the decision to temporarily pull the Dixie Chicks from the air. He told the panel that “there was a groundswell of negative reaction by our listeners against the band and we had never seen anything like it before.”

Dickey said it was a business decision and not a political one, and he noted that his company’s top-40 format stations kept playing the Dixie Chicks.

He also testified that more consolidation is good for the industry, and it won’t drown out diversity in the marketplace.

Simon Renshaw, a music industry executive, said the “mad rush to consolidate” has hurt artists and record labels by giving too much control and influence to radio stations and media companies.

Since the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which softened ownership limits, the number of station owners has dropped significantly and more stations have been snapped up by a few large companies.

The hearing by McCain’s committee was called to focus on radio issues in light of new rules from the Federal Communications Commission.

The FCC eased decades-old restrictions on ownership of newspapers and broadcast stations on June 2. While most media rules were relaxed, the FCC voted for new, stricter radio ownership rules.

An amendment sponsored by McCain would expand those new radio regulations so they apply to stations a company already owns. If enacted, the change could force companies like Clear Channel, the country’s largest radio chain with 1,200 stations, to sell stations in markets where they exceed ownership limits.

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