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'They Are the Public Airwaves, Not the Republican Airwaves'

A 'Shepherd' Q&A with media reform activist Sue Wilson

Sep. 14, 2011
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Sick of politically unbalanced radio and TV programming that only offers a right-wing point of view? Then Sue Wilson's media reform tour of Wisconsin is for you. The Emmy-winning journalist and producer will screen her documentary, Broadcast Blues, in eight Wisconsin communities throughout September to highlight the damage done by corporate-owned media outlets that dominate the national conversation. Wilson will also appear at Fighting Bob Fest in Madison on Saturday, Sept. 17.

Wilson sees Broadcast Blues not just as a movie, but as the beginning of a movement. She's asking fed-up viewers and listeners to monitor the content of talk radio so that “We the People” can make formal complaints to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in November 2012, when the agency will hear from Wisconsin citizens about our views on local radio programming. Wisconsinites will be able to comment on local TV programming in November 2013.

Wilson spoke to the Shepherd last week from her home base in Sacramento, Calif., about the pros and cons of the Fairness Doctrine and what Wisconsinites can do to take back our ownership of the public airwaves. For the full interview, go to the Daily Dose blog on ExpressMilwaukee.com. To learn more about Wilson's media reform tour, go to SueWilsonReports.com.

Shepherd: You've had a long career in broadcasting. So why did you decide to make a documentary about its problems?

Wilson: Because I have had such a long career in news. I worked under the Fairness Doctrine way back in the day. I have witnessed how very good journalism, very good broadcasting, has deteriorated over 30 years. We got rid of the Fairness Doctrine, which wasn't entirely bad, but they kind of thought that they threw out the public interest obligation with the bath water. In fact, we do still have the public interest obligation, which is lovely.

But I also witnessed—especially when the 1996 Telecommunications Act went through under the Clinton administration: I saw what happened to radio. I saw how we went almost overnight from a country that had very good local broadcasting, that had real debate and real discourse on our public airwaves, to a system that is corporate owned [and] that blocked out any views that weren't just one, right-wing side. I could see it happening in real time.

Shepherd: Why is it so important to ensure that the voices on the public airwaves provide some balance, as opposed to monitoring the content of, for example, newspapers?

Wilson: We have a very special, unique ownership of the broadcast airwaves. The reason for that is that there are only so many frequencies. If you look at your television dial, you can only have just a few TV stations in any one town. And that's for scientific reasons. There are only so many frequencies over which those signals can broadcast. Same with radio. Because of that scarcity, that is why the public has the ownership and theoretically the power to say, “This is what we want in our communities.”

Anybody can start a newspaper. If you have the money, you can find a building and hire some reporters and find a printing press and inside of 30 days you can have a newspaper. There's no legal means, there's no First Amendment issues in newspapers. You might have to have quite a few dollars to do it, but anybody can do it.

Not so with broadcasting. You can't just walk into the Milwaukee market right now and say, “I'm going to start a radio station to compete with Journal Communications.” You can't do it because the frequencies were snapped up in 1996 by these big corporations that knew just what they were doing. I don't think Clinton knew what he was signing. He has since said that that was one of the worst things that he did.

But in any case it's really important for people to understand that there is no market in radio. The right wing will tell us this is all market driven. No, no, no. This is not market driven.

Shepherd: In Broadcast Blues, you showed how difficult it is to lodge a complaint with the FCC about a station, or file a petition to deny a license renewal.

Wilson: The FCC is so completely worthless. The [commissioners] spent their entire careers with the corporations and licensing the corporations but really not thinking much about the public interest—with the exception of Michael Copps, who is the FCC rock star commissioner who also will be leaving at the end of this congressional term. But at the end of the day the FCC is also something that we are going to be dealing with.

This is something that's important for people to know all over the country. These license renewals come up once every eight years—only once every eight years. That renewal process has actually started and in fact right now North and South Carolina will have an opportunity just for the next couple of months to complain about the radio stations. Then they won't have another opportunity for the next eight years.

You've got these opportunities to formally complain, to launch petitions to deny licenses, but you have to make them by a certain date. For Wisconsin, for your radio side, Wisconsin and Illinois, that date is Nov. 1, 2012.

What I'm doing is setting up a website where people can complain to my website. [For more information, visit SueWilsonReports.com.] I will then send the information to the FCC, but also to the local affiliate that you're complaining about, to the owner, the corporate owner, and we'll be monitoring it for those really egregious times. A big one we're looking for is incitement to violence, quite frankly, because how do you define hate speech? There certainly is a lot of hate speech on the radio. But we feel like if we get a true incitement to violence, we'll file a lawsuit. But you've got this deadline, Nov. 1, 2012. You'll be able to complain about your local TV stations by Nov. 1, 2013.

Shepherd: So outside of that period there's no way to complain to the FCC?

Wilson: That's what we're trying to enable. I'm setting up a new group and a new website and we're calling it Media Action Center. Because, quite frankly, when the public complains to the FCC, it falls on deaf ears. It falls into a black hole.

Part of what I'm trying to do is to educate people that we own the public airwaves and we have been absentee landlords for too long and it is time for us as the collective “We the People” to start making noise. This does not mean just sending emails.

At the end of the day we've got to start local community by local community, No. 1, determining what you need in Milwaukee. I don't live in Milwaukee. I can give you some good ideas. But it requires the folks in Milwaukee to get together and say, “This is what we're lacking and our community would be so much better served if we had the following from local radio and local TV.” And then to make an appointment with the station manager and say, “This is what we want.” You find a lot of times that local management, that could be a guy you went to high school with. These are usually not bad people. They're usually people who love radio. There's a reason they're in radio. And some of the older ones remember a day when it was much, much better, but they work for these big corporations now that are giving the orders.

If you got a report from a local media group saying, “Here's what we've been monitoring. We did 60 days before the Scott Walker recall election, here's what we discovered,” that starts to have real teeth. That starts to have weight.

If this is really going to change, it's going to take team leaders on the ground in Wisconsin listening to what I'm saying, following this plan and working it, and giving the stuff to me to publicize as best as I can. But it really is going to take people on the ground who get it and will go to the stations to say, “We want this.”

Now if the stations ignore us completely—let's say there's this rogue station that really wants to do this right-wing crap—yes, we can do protests, we can boycott sponsors. We can file petitions to deny licenses. We can be the burr in the broadcasters' saddle. Or not. The public interest is just that. They are the public airwaves, not the Republican airwaves. It's really important for people to grasp that and for the stations to grasp that we grasp that. They really have been trying to hide that fact for a very long time.

I think what's lacking in this whole conversation is “We the People.” “We the People” didn't realize that we had any power in this. We've just been spoon-fed by the corporations that [say], “Here's the radio that you get, and if there was a market for liberal radio, we'd give it to you.” Actually, that's such a bogus argument. But what's more important is that people have got to start taking back the ownership of what we already own. They just don't want us to know that we own it. They want to think that they own it. But we own it. It's ours and we've got to start fighting for it.

Wilson will screen Broadcast Blues at the Mequon Unitarian Church North on Wednesday, Sept. 21; at the First Unitarian Society in Milwaukee on Thursday, Sept. 22; at the Lake Country Unitarian Universalist Church in Hartland on Friday, Sept. 23; and at the Olympia Brown Unitarian Universalist Church Adult R.E. Committee in Racine on Saturday, Sept. 24. For details on times and locations, go to SueWilsonReports.com.


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