When activists came to the Federal Communications Commission hearing at Duke Law School last Monday, they didn’t meet much opposition. Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, the two FCC commissioners who called the hearing, were already convinced of the importance of their message, as were most of the panelists.

More than 150 people showed up, and it turned out to be a positive, lively event. Each comment, from the panelists and from the public, will become part of the record that the five FCC commissioners and Chairman Michael Powell will consider when they vote on June 2.

The FCC is considering whether to relax or eliminate rules that limit how many media outlets a single company can own, both nationally and within a given market. Currently, a company can’t own more than 35 percent of the TV market share in a single metro area, and no company is allowed to own both a daily newspaper and a TV station. The way things are headed, both of those rules could be scrapped, along with what remains of radio ownership rules.

But even with two of the five commissioners listening intently, the cause is hardly won. Copps lamented that he has yet to see a network news program run a story on the issue. Adelstein noted that the commission has already received 8,000 public comments, “but there are 285 million people in this country,” he added, and three quarters of them have no idea any of this is going on. The stakes are high, since consolidation is rarely, if ever, reversed.

Several panelists drew applause from the crowd, starting with U.S. Rep. David Price (D-Chapel Hill) who expressed regret that Chairman Powell wasn’t present and fear that the day is approaching when a choice of local news programming would dry up. “Two hundred flavors on cable TV won’t do the job.” When he expressed concern about a media conglomerate making a list of songs it would ban from radio play because of their political content (he was talking about Clear Channel, though he didn’t mention them by name), the audience became excited. “Concentration has already gone too far,” he said to applause.

If solidly liberal Price was a predictable member of such a panel, U.S. Rep. Richard Burr was a bit of a surprise. Burr, a Republican from the 5th District expected to run for John Edwards’ Senate seat, was the first to articulate the conservative point of view on media consolidation and programming: Centralized control by networks takes away local stations’ ability to make choices about which shows are and aren’t appropriate for the local audience.

“I’m a conservative,” Burr said. “I believe in limited government. But I also believe in another conservative ideal”–preserving community standards–“rather than have those decisions made by a handful of corporations. In communications law, we call this localism.” The opposite of localism is federalism, Burr pointed out, whether it’s coming from the FCC or NBC. “As many families in North Carolina have told me, we have a moral crisis in network television.” Burr believes that networks have drifted toward programming that offends decency and “demeans the institution of marriage,” and that network affiliates should have more freedom not to air it.

Bill Brooks of the North Carolina Family Policy Council added to the conservative sentiment, saying that network executives in Hollywood are “pushing a new moral agenda” of homosexuality, adultery, etc. It’s doubtful that anyone in the crowd had come to complain about reruns of Will & Grace. But this conservative angle does illustrate that the issues at stake go beyond partisan politics.

Burr was referring to Jim Goodmon’s decision to drop Married By America, Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire and Temptation Island from one of his two local stations, WRAZ FOX 50. “That’s hard to do,” Goodmon said. “You should hear the calls.” Goodmon was able to face the network’s wrath because he owns the stations. “If the fox owns the henhouse,” Goodmon asked provocatively, “what prevents the fox from ravaging the hens?”

NBC 17 President and General Manager Michael Ward joked that he was “speaking for the fox,” as he faced off with Goodmon and another local owner, Hank Price of WXII in Greensboro, about the premise that local interests are best served by local ownership. Before NBC bought the station, it was a locally owned home shopping network. “It’s simply not enough to avoid offensive programming,” he said. Now, the station has the resources to create original local programming.

Another pro-corporate representative argued in the panel on localism and news that maximum revenue and the public interest are complementary objectives. “Frankly, it’s not at all surprising that these two goals work in harmony,” said Barry Faber, vice president and general council of Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns WB 22 and UPN 28. Their 10 o’clock evening news is centralized, with a national corporate commentary.

Jim Heavner, speaking like a repentant sinner, countered that consolidation does not, in fact, serve the public interest. “A disaster for the public would be more accurate.” The president and owner of VilCom has bought and sold dozens of stations over the years, but now his company’s only broadcast holding is the small AM station WCHL in Chapel Hill.

“In my younger days, I would go to National Association of Broadcasters meetings and I would hear all the rich, smart old guys and I would sidle up and agree with them,” he recalled. Nobody wanted the FCC to bother with their business. “We all want more freedom from government,” he said. “I’ve profited from deregulation, which drove up the price” of the stations he sold off after the 1996 Telecom Act. “My profits and those like mine came at the public’s expense.”

William Sutton Jr., deputy managing editor of The News & Observer, was a last-minute addition to the news panel, representing the National Association of Black Journalists. He pointed out that a loss of jobs in the past 25 years of consolidation has had an especially big impact on black journalists, especially in radio. That has meant less diversity in the newsroom, fewer “different perspectives of ‘What is news?’”

Sutton’s comments were nowhere to be found in The News & Observer‘s coverage of the FCC hearing. Instead, there was a quote from Orage Quarles III, publisher of The N&O, speaking in favor of scrapping the rule that prohibits cross-ownership of newspapers and radio or TV in the same market. It sounded from the story like Quarles was at the hearing–only he wasn’t.

“We could have been clearer on that,” said N&O Managing Editor John Drescher. But he said Quarles was included “because we wanted to come clean with our readers, to let readers know that The N&O has a position on this issue. And I think it’s relevant to the story.”

The highlight of the day came when Raleigh country-roots musician Tift Merritt confronted Don Curtis, owner of 15 local stations including country station WQDR. Merritt was a last-minute addition to the panel on diversity with Curtis, Charlotte-based independent broadcaster Gregory Davis and Bill Willis, a bluegrass musician.

It didn’t take long before Merritt stole the show. Beautiful, smiling and serious, Merritt stood out partly because she was the only female panelist. “If you haven’t heard of me, it may well be because I’m not on the radio,” she began. Her album Bramble Rose made top 10 lists all over the country. She was featured in Time and Vanity Fair, and you can see her video on the Country Music Television network. But you won’t hear her voice on WQDR.

“I’m sorry,” she said charmingly to Curtis across the table. “I didn’t know you were going to be here. But I am going to pick on you.” Despite making major inroads on the national country scene, Merritt couldn’t even get played on the locally owned local station. “One might venture to think that my hometown station would be happy, if not ecstatic, to play my record.” But when fans and friends called in, DJs told them that the playlist is set by management, and her record wasn’t on it.

“Why?” she asked Curtis, to astonished laughter in the crowd. Curtis tittered at being put on the spot. “Mr. Curtis, I know you know my dad, too. And I know you have my record because my dad gave it to you,” she smiled. It was a moment that could only have happened in the South. The spectacle of a female musician putting the men in suits to shame was the best show of the day. Merritt portrayed herself not as a whiner but as a small businesswoman who hires other musicians, sound engineers, agents, technicians. “You’re going to lose thousands of people like me,” she said, getting a standing ovation from a group of disk jockeys from Duke station WXDU.

Curtis didn’t have much of a defense. “I don’t know how music is chosen,” but the DJs do have input, he insisted, though he said that whatever the process was, it was flawed.

Then Adelstein said the word: payola. It’s common practice these days for money to be routed through “independent promoters” who are hired by record companies to get records played on commercial stations.

“It’s on my royalty statement!” Merritt interjected to everyone’s surprise. Curtis quickly said that his announcers have to sign a statement twice a year vowing that they don’t accept pay for play. But he added that insistent calls from record companies impose serious pressure.

Copps thanked Merritt for her “courage to testify,” and expressed fear that musicians who speak up could be blacklisted. “Am I going to be shot?” Merritt joked, then said she didn’t make enough money for Clear Channel to care about her.

During the hour-long public comment session, 17 people came to the microphone to speak. James Vaughan, a small broadcaster, said he bowed to market pressures and sold his two small stations. Young students from Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies expressed concerns about racism. One local activist asked what guarantee the commissioners could give that any of the statements would be heard by those at the FCC who were not already convinced.

“You have no assurance that your voice will be heard,” Copps said dramatically when the public comment period was over. “It’s got to become a grassroots issue. If you want to be sure your voice is heard, don’t stop now.”

You can file a public comment online at gullfoss2.fcc.gov/ecfs/Upload. EndBlock