February 2016 marks the 20th anniversary of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
There are no planned celebrations. No parades. No planned parties. You’d think someone, somewhere would have popped open a bottle of Dom Perignon by now. But, nothing. Not even from those who lined their pockets and are clearly to blame for tearing the fiscal heart out of the radio industry.
“Two thousand zero, zero party over oops, out of time.
This month we’re gonna party like it’s 1996.”
I guess the silence makes sense, because that’s how “radio’s” deregulation came about in the first place, buried in a bill that many in Congress were all too happy to approve.
On a typical, winter February day in 1996, then President Bill Clinton picked up the actual pen President Eisenhower used to create the interstate highway system in 1957 and signed away the futures of the thousands who made their living in radio. This was to the cheers of the National Association of Broadcasters (N.A.B), the Washington lobby that regularly cuddles up to Congressional members for, how shall I say, favors. Clinton then, symbolically used a “digital pen” to sign another “electronic” copy of the bill that was to be posted on the Internet.
This was in 1996. A “digital” what? “Inter-who?” Can you explain this “digital” you speak of?
Ironically, the Telecommunication Act of 1996 really had little to do with radio broadcasting. Its purpose was to get rid of regulations in the telephone and cable industries. One idea was to allow local telephone companies to offer long distance and cable TV services and allow cable companies to do the same thing.
You know, more competition means lower prices. How much is your monthly cable bill again?
The bill addressed important “1996” issues like V-chips for parents who didn’t want the responsibilities of parenting and Internet porn. It also addressed something very few were talking about, at least publicly. There in small print, somewhere in the bill’s dozens of pages, were a few words about lifting ownership limits for radio station owners. Section 202 to be exact. Companies would now be able to own up to eight radio stations in a market, instead of just two.
Clinton, a Democrat, said the bill, “fulfills my administration’s promise to reform telecommunication laws in a manner that leads to competition and private investment.” In his remarks that day, he never brought up the lifting of radio’s ownership limits.
Let’s jump back a few more years to November 1994.
The Republicans had just taken control of the House of Representatives in the midterm elections.That’s when House Speaker Newt Gingrich became nationally known. Gingrich, through the think tank the Progress and Freedom Foundation, was already working on deregulation for telecommunications. That organization authored a piece called the “Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age.” No where in it was radio mentioned.
Then, in early 1995, the newly sworn in Congress began reaching out to communication industry executives to, as a New York Times article says, implore “companies to offer suggestions about the ways that Congress could help them.”
Now they were speaking the N.A.B.’s language! Green backs. Benjamins. Dead Presidents. Scratch.
Here’s something you didn’t know. The version of the proposed telecom act that was originally drafted would have allowed one company to own a market’s cable television system, its newspaper, a TV station and EVERY local radio station. Yes, you read that correctly. EVERY as in all of them.
Greed was on display in all its glory.
The N.A.B. was quietly being the BFF of Congress. Reports from back then suggest there were many late evenings meetings, plenty of steak dinners and gallons of top shelf liquor consumed.
But, then common sense took hold of Congress and they started to question the logic of putting that much media influence in the hands of a only a few people. Sure, it was a great idea if these few powerful people liked them. But, what if they didn’t? Congress figured this can’t be good.
Their debate soon focused on radio as they tried to determine if it was really a serious news and information source for the public. Remember, this is 1995! Congress determined radio wasn’t. They knew, of course, this wasn’t true because conservative talk radio was just starting to approach the heights of its popularity. The GOP controlled Congress loved talk hosts like Rush Limbaugh and others carrying their water and using their talking points as show prep. What wasn’t to like? These hosts would parrot anything the Republicans told them say.
Eventually, ownership provisions for television, cable and newspapers were removed from the bill, but radio was ignored.
Congress, serving its N.A.B. lobbyist masters, kept quiet. The N.A.B., serving its Congressional masters, kept quiet. It was the ultimate quid pro quo. No one called attention to what was left behind in the final draft of the bill, the lifting of radio station ownership limits.
The N.A.B.and Congress adopted the Mafia principle of “omertà” and ultimately sold out the radio industry.
And what about the Federal Communications Commission (F.C.C.)? Where were they when it came to protecting the “public interest, convenience and necessity?” With a bill as important as this, the first major rewrite of communication law since the 1930’s, could we have expected a public meeting or two? They did nothing.
TELECOMMUNICATIONS ACT OF 1996 TIMELINE
On June 15, 1995, voting 81% to 18%, the U.S. Senate approves the bill (1% didn’t vote).
On October 12, 1995, the House of Representatives approves the bill. Since there were no objections, there is NO record of individual votes.
Finally, there were what’s called conference committee reports, meant to workout any differences in the House and Senate bills. On February 1, 1996, each chamber voted on these compromises. The House approved by 95% to 4% (1% didn’t vote). The Senate approved by 92% to 5% (3% didn’t vote)
President Clinton signed the bill into law. That was on February 8, 1996.
Some now say if Congress knew what was in the bill, it would never have passed. I don’t believe that for a minute. The fix was in. The lobbying group charged to protect broadcasting, the federal agency charged to protect the public’s interests, Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, and the President were all in on it.
The result, 20 years later, two greedy “consolidator” companies are on the verge of bankruptcy. There’s less diversity in radio programming and we have an industry resistant to the changing needs of the consumer.
Happy 20th Anniversary!