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Extended Interview: Senator Byron Dorgan

January 12, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT

NEWSHOUR: Some who were involved in drafting the Telecommunications Act have said that nobody was thinking a whole lot about radio; there were too many other things in the bill, and that radio was kind of on the back burner. Do you think people had radio in mind when they worked on the Telecommunications Act?

SEN. BYRON DORGAN: Oh, sure. There were a couple of people that had radio and television concentration in mind. One senator still serving was champion of making sure that there were no restrictions on the number of radio stations you could own in this country, removing all limits – another, who’s since retired, wanted almost all the limits off the number of television stations you could own.

In fact, I went to the floor and challenged the television station ownership limits and won by about four or five votes, and then dinner intervened and about four or five senators had an epiphany and the senator who was the key sponsor – Senator Dole was pushing that thing – he got them to change their mind, and about four hours later I lost.

But don’t let people tell you they weren’t thinking about radio and television ownership. There was a very aggressive effort to make sure that the ownership limits were lifted on all radio stations in this country, which I think is a huge mistake, and a loosening of the limits on television station ownership.

NEWSHOUR: Do you think, in retrospect, if people in Congress considered what ultimately might happen to radio, would they have made the same decision?

SEN. BYRON DORGAN: I don’t know, but what has happened with radio concentration is outrageous, just outrageous. Now we have a merger application pending that will mean one company will own nearly 1,000 radio stations in this country.

Just four years ago, when the Telecommunications Act passed, the largest owner of radio stations had something like 62 stations. And what has happened is we had this massive concentration in big markets and small markets, and a diminished amount of localism. Local ownership is gone. Localism in the way a radio station operates is gone. I think what’s happened is awful, just awful. And, in fact, it’s not stopping.

NEWSHOUR: There are some who argue that radio stations would have difficulty staying alive in the future, so it’s better to have stations with a couple of big owners than no stations at all. What do you say to that?

SEN. BYRON DORGAN: Well, that’s nonsense, and they know it. In my judgment it was big money pushing elimination of the ownership caps that existed for both the television stations and radio stations. And this didn’t have anything to do with small markets. It had to do with big money. It had to do with big corporate interests wanting to get rid of the limits so they could buy up properties.

And we went from somewhere just over 60 radio stations owned by the largest company in the country – now that same company owns nearly 500 stations, and they’re in the process of trying to merge with another, so there will be nearly a thousand stations under one central corporate owner. In my judgment that’s marching in the wrong direction.

You know, we ought to be talking about competition here. In many communities around this country, you’ll find that two companies in the community have purchased almost all of the radio stations and control 70, 80, in some cases, 90 percent of all the ad revenue that’s coming in.

NEWSHOUR: Do you find now that you have less news and, subsequently, less local news in North Dakota?

SEN. BYRON DORGAN: Sure. I mean, when you have the large corporate ownership from out of state what happens is they’re providing a kind of menu that’s their national menu of programming, and their interest is in grabbing at dollars and maximizing ad revenue. And when you have – you know – only two people in a community that are controlling that, obviously they have the opportunity to price that at a much higher rate. But there’s a lot less attention, I think, to local responsibilities and local news.

NEWSHOUR: Some people also argue that listeners are better off with a syndicated news broadcast than no news broadcast and that, in some small markets, local news is actually better off. Does that make any sense to you?

SEN. BYRON DORGAN: That’s sort of an elitist load of garbage. I mean, people know better than that. To suggest that the radio ownership in this country shall be concentrated under the umbrella of just a couple of corporations, will somehow be better for folks in local communities – that’s nonsense. First of all, the licensing of the airwaves is a public responsibility. We have circumstances where we have decided that we will license radio stations. And there’s a public interest requirement of those radio stations; the public owns these airwaves.

And I mean, I just don’t think that you can make a plausible case that where this is all heading is in the country’s interest. You take a look at what’s happening to content and some of the entertainment on radio these days. Some of that would not happen with local ownership. It happens because you have corporate ownership a thousand miles away and they’re not interested in anything except the revenue stream and they’re not taking a lot of cues in terms of what people in the community think is acceptable.

And yet, I think local ownership of these stations, which existed for many, many years — and it certainly existed profitably — in which they served their communities, they have a news operation, they understand what people in their communities want to hear about their local area and their region. Gosh, I think that’s a much better service to the local communities than having the kind of concentration we now have.

There isn’t feedback that allows someone in a small community whose radio station used to be owned by somebody who was part of the Kiwanis Club and part of the local Chamber of Commerce and was donating to the Little League and so on, that person was available and that person was available to the local consumer, who was the local listener. Now somebody in – you know – a corporation a thousand miles away buys it and added it to their other 450 stations.

Who does that local listener respond to, talk to, give their input to? The fact is we’ve divorced the connection between those who own these properties and those who are the users or the listeners. And I think that’s also a step backwards. But my main concern is this: I think this radio industry is moving just like the airline industry and several others, unabated.

Big corporate money is piling all these radio stations together and feeding us a homogenized entertainment menu they concoct out of their corporate headquarters. In many of these markets you got two companies controlling most of the advertising revenue, and they’re saying to businesses and others who are advertising here are the rates; if you don’t like it, tough luck; that’s what the rates are. I don’t think that’s in the country’s interest.

NEWSHOUR: Consumers have recently started to voice a rising number of complaints about the airline industry. But few people seem upset about what’s happening in radio. Why?

SEN. BYRON DORGAN: I don’t know the answer to that, but I know that you ask businesses what’s happening to their advertising rates, many of these properties that have been purchased, and you’ll find advertising rates have increased. I think you’re going to start to see some of this.

You probably understand that the airline industry began its massive concentration in the 1980s, continuing through the 1990s. The massive concentration in radio started after 1996, so this has only happened in three, four, five years, and it’s happened with almost lightning speed. And the consequences of it, I think, have not been fully realized by the local mom and pop businesses and others around the country.

NEWSHOUR: A gentleman I talked to in a smaller market described local news as the lifeblood of communities, particularly rural communities. Do you agree with that, and do you think it’s gone forever?

SEN. BYRON DORGAN: Well, we need some action here in Washington by antitrust officials, by the Federal Communications Commission and others to start stopping this orgy of mergers from not only this industry but others, especially in the radio industry.

Yes, I think the answer is that these mergers and the concentration by which local stations have been bought up by large corporate entities where they now are trying to put 500 and in some cases 1,000 radio stations under one corporate umbrella, I think that inevitably hurts localism in broadcasting. And localism has been a hallmark in broadcasting; it’s part of the public service of broadcasting. Local news, local events, description of what’s happening in your local community…

This country has done well because of a sense of community, and I think we’re losing the opportunity to serve that sense of community when you have radio stations that are locally owned but now bought up and are part of a large conglomerate of corporate groups. I think that hurts, and I think that takes something away from this country that’s very important to this country.

NEWSHOUR: Are there any plans for Congress to tackle this issue?

SEN. BYRON DORGAN: Well, look, this Congress is a Congress that has been inherently friendly to almost any big business interest. This is a Congress made up of a majority party that says the bigger the better.

You know, “you want to merge? You want to have concentration? Good, good for you.” Senator Dole was a person that pushed removing the ownership limits on television stations, and a majority senator still in the Senate pushed the removal of limits on radio stations.

They think this is fine. I don’t think it is. I mean, I think they’re dead wrong, but this is not a Congress that’s very hospitable to those of us that believe we ought to start taking some action to put the brakes on these mergers – in radio, yes, but in some other industries as well.