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Remarks by FCC Commissioner Harold W. Furchtgott-Roth
Before the Massachusetts Broadcasters Association
February 17, 1998
Boston, MA

It is a great honor to be here in Boston before the Massachusetts Broadcasters. As many of you know, I attended MIT more years ago than I wish to recall. The skyline has changed a bit, but Boston is still Boston.

Many of you do not know me well. And many of you may have reason to suspect anyone from the FCC. After all, it is the FCC, and not Massachusetts authorities, that exercise the legal authority to regulate most broadcasting services, even local broadcast services.

It would be easy to imagine an FCC Commissioner enthralled with power, eager to tell you what to do and what not to do. Doubtlessly, there have been such Commissioners. Commissioners who say: "I am from the FCC and I am here to help." These Commissioners tell you to listen to Washington. They will tell you that Washington knows best how to regulate you. That Washington knows best the public interest. Just listen to Washington and you will be all right.

I am afraid that if you are looking for that sort of Commissioner, you found the wrong fellow. I have not come to talk as much to listen.

What I hope to hear are your views. Your views as broadcasters in Massachusetts. Your views as broadcasters close to the People of Massachusetts. Your views as the People of Massachusetts.

I believe deeply that the FCC should regulate in the public interest. In general, the public interest is served when the benefits of regulation clearly exceed the costs.

Broadcasting statutes and regulations are particularly intertwined with the public interest. For broadcasting, I believe that the public interest is to be found in local people, whether in South Carolina or Massachusetts, not from the regulators in Washington.

I believe that you as the broadcasters of Massachusetts are best positioned to determine what the public interest is for your Massachusetts audience, far better than anyone in Washington. And I want to be sure that it stays that way.


If I don't like excessive regulation from Washington, how did I wind up at the FCC? Let me tell you a little about my background.

When I was growing up, I watched a lot of television, and listened to a lot of radio, both network and local. I particularly liked the local, and the local broadcast personalities. They were a little larger than life for my school friends and me. The ultimate party would have a local disk jockey selecting music. School boys would take turns trying to imitate local sports casters. Summer nights were spent listening to the Braves on a transistor radio, waiting for Hank Aaron to hit another home run. Spotting a local broadcast personality was a big event.

My family moved to Columbia, South Carolina from Knoxville, Tennessee, when I was twelve. One of the first thing that strikes a twelve-year old in a new city are the local broadcasters. I knew their names before I knew my new classmates.

In Columbia as elsewhere, the local broadcast personalities were respected members of the community. By listening to them and watching them, one learned much about a community. Not just the specific information they spoke, but also the subtle messages about local speech and mannerisms, what was acceptable speech in local communication -- and by implication, what was not. And let me tell you, there were and are subtle differences between Knoxville and Columbia. Subtle differences that local people would know, but not necessarily people in Washington, DC. The public interest in Knoxville is a little different from the public interest in Columbia.

I got my own start in television here in high school. During my senior year of high school, the local school district announced a student-run television program to be broadcast on closed-circuit television to the schools in the District. I decided to sign up to work on the program.

This was back in 1974. Perhaps those were days of student apathy. More likely, the launching of the television program was not well announced. In any case, only a few students signed up to work on the program. And I was appointed the student in charge with a grand sounding name, something like executive producer. I quickly discovered that having a grand sounding title was the consolation prize for watching other people do most of the work.

The faculty sponsor was a fellow named Mr. Feder, who was, I believe, a graduate of Northeastern University. I learned a lot from him and the other students working on the programs. We not only produced television programs, but we also learned about television.

I vividly recall a conversation with a local news anchor. I asked him a question--I don't even remember what it was. But he became very animated and gave an impassioned speech on the responsibilities of a journalist and the responsibility to the viewing audience.

I don't recall the details of his comments, but I do recall the intensity. And I recall the sense that I was talking with someone who had thought about an issue far more than I ever had -- or ever likely would. He had his own view of the public interest and why should anyone in Washington tell him that it was any different.

I believe that we produced two 15 minute shows. I was also editor of my high school newspaper. Those were the days before any broadcast-newspaper cross-editorship restrictions. Let me tell you, producing one 15-minute show was much harder than editing one edition of the student newspaper. I became very appreciative of how difficult video production was.

One of my real jobs in addition to having a fancy title was to be initial announcer for the show. In my deepest bass voice, I would enunciate the programs title, word-by-word: "Let's--Find--Out--What's--Happening ... Let's Find Out What's Happening .. A Production of Richland County School District Number One."

One of the frustrations of working on the show was to discover that practically no one watched it in the schools. The shows were supposedly aired during home room class in schools around the district, but students tended to be more interested in talking to their friends than watching the student-created news program.

I learned that not only is creating video programming difficult, but creating programming, particularly news programming, that would be of interest to wide audiences was even more difficult. In my brief student career, I never succeeded.


The next year, I went to college at MIT. It was there that I lost the slight Southern accent I must have once had.

It was one of the first days of class, and I was in a large calculus lecture hall with hundreds of other students. The professor said something that I did not quite understand. I raised my hand and was eventually recognized. I said:

"Excuse me, sir, could you repeat that please." I suppose that I must have sounded a bit like Gomer Pyle. There were hoots of laughter from around the lecture hall. "Who's the dumb country bumpkin? Who's the dumb Southern yokel?" If there were a shell available, I would have crawled into it. The professor waited for the commotion to die down and said: "You don't have to call me 'sir'."

I vowed after that class that I would not be defeated. If it meant changing my accent, it would change. If it meant changing how I addressed people, it would change. And it did.

I have told this story many times, and people have often remarked on the tragedy of losing an accent. But the real tragedy was not so much the changed inflection of speech, but the changed manner of addressing people whom I had always been taught to address with due respect.

Ted Turner

MIT had a small low-power radio station. It had the call letters WTBS. There was an obscure fellow in the South who wanted the call letters and was willing to pay the college thousands of dollars for the rights. Most of us thought he was crazy to spend so much money for the call letters.


My next sustained exposure to broadcasting was in private economic consulting for six years from 1988 to 1994. I worked for clients on a alphabet soup of broadcast issues: FISR, SYNDEX, and PTAR, to name but a few. I worked on mergers and acquisitions, and I worked on regulatory issues. I worked on Spanish language television issues, and I worked on getting American programming into France. I worked for all sorts of clients: motion picture, broadcast network, broadcast station, major league sports, and cable.

On practically all of my projects, I worked with mountains of data. I was, after all, an economist. Ratings data, program lineup data, producer data, cost data, and data on every possible topic related to video programming and television. I wrote many papers and articles on video programming, and ultimately a book on cable regulation.

Most of my consulting was related to regulation. I soon recognized that regulation was awkward and cumbersome, almost impossible to get exactly right--or even approximately right. I had a troubling sense that much of the regulation on which I worked probably did not do much good for everyday Americans.

House Commerce Committee

In early 1995, I went to work for the House Commerce Committee as the Chief Economist. I spent most of my first two years on the Telecommunications Act of 1996. My primary job was to ensure that the Act helped consumers; the most straightforward approach was to ensure that there was less rather than more regulation. I believe that the Act has succeeded.

In working for the House Commerce Committee, I came to appreciate the service that local broadcasters provide to their communities. Many constituents complained about issues related to different industries. Complaints about local broadcasters, however, were rare in Congress, and rare here at the FCC.

United Kingdom

My wife's family is from England. We go to visit every year or so. In the United Kingdom are five broadcast television networks, three public and two private. There are a limited number of radio broadcasters as well. While there is some regional programming, most of the programming decisions are made in London, and there is not the same rich system of local broadcasting that is found in the United States.

The United Kingdom is a great country, and it has a great broadcast industry, one of the best in the world. But, at least in broadcasting, the United States would be well advised not to follow our British counterparts.


I was nominated to the FCC last year by President Clinton, and I have been a Commissioner since November. I have had the honor of inheriting Commissioner Jim Quello's office. After serving as decorated soldier in World War II, he we went to a successful career in broadcasting. He then started a new career at the FCC for 23 years before retiring last year. He was one of the greatest commissioners ever and a true friend.

Changing the Public Interest Standard

Broadcasters serve their local communities. If they don't, they go out of business. Ultimately, it is the broadcaster who seeks and finds the local public interest. It seems to be a public interest standard that has worked well.

Curiously, there are those who seek to change the public interest standard, particularly for the new digital medium. The suggested changes are not minor modifications but major, unprecedented changes. One of these suggested changes involves national standards for free air time for political candidates.

Are major changes needed in the public interest standard? I am not convinced.

I have First Amendment concerns about compelled political speech. Does the First Amendment permit Congress or the FCC to restrict or to compel the content of broadcast speech? I am doubtful that such authority exists. And does the First Amendment permit Congress or the FCC to restrict or to compel the political content of broadcast speech? I am doubtful that such authority exists. I am even more doubtful.

And I have concerns about making broadcasters twice poor through regulation. First, the FCC would deprive a broadcaster of a major advertising source--political candidates. Second, the FCC would deprive a broadcaster of an opportunity to sell to other advertisers the time for which a politician would have paid. Instead, the broadcaster must give to politicians the station's only valuable asset--air time.

The number of politicians might explode. There are a lot of people who might simply like to see their picture on television. Why not, if it is free?

Even people who already on television may not want to pay. Consider a car dealer who pays $500 for the following spot: "Hi, I am Jim Smith. I have a car dealership. I am an honest man and treat my customers well. Come buy a car from me." With free air time for politicians, instead of paying for the spot, Jim Smith might get a free spot: "Hi, I am Jim Smith. I have a car dealership. I am an honest man and treat my customers well. Vote for me in the next election."

Who pays for all of this "free" political air time? Broadcasters do through lost revenue. It is really just a painful tax for them.

Legitimate advertisers do because they will end up paying more for air time to compensate for the free loaders.

And finally, the American public will pay by having to tolerate more rather than less political advertising. But political advertising is not what most Americans really want to watch. The commercials tend to be relatiely low quality. Americans may simply switch off their television sets, or migrate ever more rapidly to cable which would not have the free political advertising requirements.

FCC Authority to Require Free Political Advertising

Even if free air time were such a good idea, does the FCC have the authority to compel broadcasters to provide free air time for politicians? I am not convinced that we have the legal authority to do so.

For the past few years, Congress has grappled with the issue of campaign finance reform, including legislation to provide free air time for politicians. The key word here is "legislation." Many of the proponents of free air time for politicians simply do not believe that the FCC has current statutory authority to mandate it; instead, these proponents believe that Congress must legislate free air time. And many in Congress are working on such legislation.

And many in Congress, perhaps the majority, believe that free air time for politicians is simply a bad idea.

Only fools rush in where angels fear to tread. Free air time for politicians is a complicated issue. I am not yet convinced that it is a good idea. And if it is a good idea, I believe that it is Congress, not the FCC, that should deliberate this issue.