There are clusters of nutty ideas scattered around Washington these days, and not all of them can be found at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Recently, various and sundry emanated from the Federal Communications Commission.
Perhaps the goofiest of all time is the digital TV mess, the ramifications of which won't be known for 10 years. That's when all us Americans will have to buy new TV sets even though we're perfectly satisfied with the old ones. There is some hope on this one. At a recent conference, Commissioner Michael Powell declared that the Emperor had no clothes when he called the DTV proposal "a potential train wreck." His argument, a good one, is that no one has bothered to check with the public. If the audience rejects DTV on the first go around, and TV stations end up keeping both their old and new channels, the FCC has committed more valuable spectrum space to TV rather than less. Plus the government may not get the old TV channels back to sell to the highest bidder. Moreover, no one at the FCC wants to talk about the cable TV industry. If it doesn't distribute the new DTV signals, two-thirds of US households won't see them anyhow.
Meanwhile, FCC Chairman Bill Kennard has come up with a proposal that may hit the peak on the stupidity scale. Kennard wants to create a new classification of low-power FM channels called Microradios. The logic, such as it is, proclaims that we need these channels, and the radio stations that will occupy them, to combat pirate radio on one hand and to give minorities opportunities to own a piece of the media environment on the other. As a start, Kennard plans to track the number of radio and TV stations owned by minorities and women.
Let me interject that increased minority ownership is a valid and long-standing goal of FCC policy. Most power brokers in broadcasting are white men, a common situation in American enterprise. Over the years the FCC and industry associations have tried to remedy this situation with preferences in competitive hearings for new stations, low-interest loan programs, and EEO model plans, all to no avail. I don't claim to know the answer, but I doubt that giving an already marginalized population marginal business opportunities like low-power FM is even close.
And how big of a problem is pirate radio -- media swashbucklers who put their own unlicensed radio stations on the air? Not much in these parts. Where pirate radio exists, in some big cities and California, where Goofy was created, it's somewhat of a nuisance. However, it's also easy to detect pirate radio stations and shut 'em down. After all, the practice is illegal, and it's the job of the FCC to enforce these regulations.
Why not tell the pirates to use the Internet, with all the other wackos, or become amateur radio operators which is what they are? That's too sensible, especially for an FCC Chairman who is probably building a political and legal agenda for his career when he bolts the commission after two years. Instead, Kennard proposes a profligate alternative that will clutter the FM band with more signals and programming of little interest to the general audience, and pull revenues from an industry that is finally achieving some financial stability after two decades of chaos. By the way, those financial woes began when another FCC Chairman created a bunch of new radio channels.
This would be amusing except we taxpayers are footing the bill for the FCC follies. If I wanted to see clowns, I'd go to the circus.