Citizens speak Hard of Hearing

San Antonio has spoken: Will the FCC's Michael Powell listen?

Stan Thomas (center) of Neighborhoods First Alliance was one of hundreds of people who lined up to attend the FCC hearing at City Council Chambers. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)
For media activists, January 28 started early, at 4 a.m., and ended late, about 19 hours after the first people cocooned themselves in heavy blankets and queued up by the entrance to City Council Chambers, waiting for the Federal Communications Commission hearing to begin.

Shortly before 5 a.m., a Chambers security guard checked on the 10 or so folks in line, he said, to ensure that no one had been knifed.

At 6, the church bells rang.

At 7, the sky began to glow above the cityscape.

And throughout the rest of the day, hundreds more arrived - some opposing the FCC's new, relaxed ownership rules; others who came to laud the accomplishments of Clear Channel. By the time the 4 p.m. rally started in Main Plaza, the line had extended south past San Fernando Cathedral and wrapped around Espuma on Dolorosa, where a broadcasting industry group was meeting.

People brought blankets and books and Bill Miller's Bar-B-Q. Some held signs that read "Boycott Channel 4" and "Not one nation under Clear Channel." In the middle of the line, a well-dressed man on a hands-free cellphone appeared to be speaking into the air as he discussed an unnamed Texas newscaster: "She's a mainstay; she's always going to be there."

It was not an accident that FCC Chairman Michael Powell chose San Antonio to be one of six U.S. cities to host a public hearing. One of the largest media conglomerates and a generous contributor to the Bush administration, Clear Channel, is headquartered here. Powell, the son of Secretary of State Colin Powell, could expect CEO Lowry Mays to be a hospitable and doting host - despite the $755,000 fine for indecency the FCC conveniently levied against the company the day before.

Clear Channel's presence, the interest from FCC supporters and opponents, and the emotional intensity that colored the day's events illustrate how strongly the issues of media ownership and localism resonate in San Antonio.

The events that took place outside the hearing were arguably as important as the hearing itself. Behind the scenes, while telecommunications giant SBC hosted a luncheon for Powell and select area college students, members of a pirate radio station broadcast its protest (until the transmitter ran out of juice) in front of Clear Channel's main office, and a Clear Channel billboard on Hildebrand was tagged.

The hour-long rally in Main Plaza featured speeches from small Texas broadcasters, public interest organizations, and ethnic groups. "The media plays a pivotal role in shaping public opinion and creating lasting images," proclaimed Nadine Saliba from the Arab and International Women's Association. "The media has toed the government line when it comes to issues affecting Arab Americans; it has echoed the administration's propaganda and has engaged in a degree of auto censorship that is shameful and inexcusable in a free society. And things stand to get worse with the FCC project for media consolidation."

Two hours before the hearing, the AFL-CIO issued a Cornell University study - which the labor union commissioned - concluding that, newsflash: Clear Channel's control of broadcast media, sports management, billboards, talent agencies, promotions, ticket vendors, and performance venues undermines musicians. (Go to to order the entire study.)

"Clear Channel can pressure artists to use Clear Channel venues if they want Clear Channel airplay," added Raymond Hair of the American Federation of Musicians. "Clear Channel ignores local artists in favor of Clear Channel artists they want to promote."

Inside the hearing, Clear Channel Vice President/Market Manager Tom Glade defended his company, emphasizing the $6 million it has donated to San Antonio charities (a tax write-off) and $3 million in donated airtime. "I would move heaven and earth to make listeners happy," he said to a round of boos.

If that's the case, the planets are stable, because for five-and-a-half hours, speaker after speaker - most of them opposing media consolidation - bashed Clear Channel and the local media for failing to serve San Antonio.

Hugh Henry was one of the few proponents of the FCC's proposed rules to further deregulate the broadcasting industry. He attended the January 28 rally in Main Plaza that preceded the FCC hearing that evening. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)
Former League of United Latin American Citizens President Oscar Moran noted that "deregulating the FCC has not served minority communities. We are on the precipice of relinquishing our rights to unencumbered, unfiltered local news and cultural awareness."

East Side activist T.C. Calvert took the podium as if it were a pulpit: "Brother Powell," Calvert said to the chairman, "In the flood of 1998, Salado Creek was rising, people's homes were being threatened, and KSJL `owned by Clear Channel` was playing hits and oldies instead of warning people about the flood."

Using sign language and an interpreter, Charles Estes of Denton noted that the FCC had seated the deaf and hard-of-hearing people in front, but had placed the closed captioning far to the side of the room. "And at 7:28 the captioning disappeared for more than two minutes. That happens all the time. Local news is not captioned."

Two students from Communication Arts High School, a school whose media partners are KSAT, KVDA, WOAI radio, and the Express-News, questioned why a school trip to the hearing for 25 students had been canceled. "Did it have something to do with the media sponsors?" they asked.

Commissioner Michael Copps, an opponent of the relaxed rules, was the first on the FCC to throw down the gauntlet. His statement followed that of Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy, who said she was interested in "listening and learning," and applauded Big Media for participating in non-broadcast public interest events: blood drives, charities, and other do-gooder activities designed to boost the stations' images and to absolve them from broadcasting genuine public interest programming.

"Media ownership cannot be separated from localism," said Copps, whose comment was intended to derail Powell's spin that a discussion of media ownership had no place at a localism hearing. "Non-broadcast events are important, but only a part of the public interest obligation."

The hearing had its share of strange moments. The first man in line yammered about someone being on PCP, then added, "Leave Clear Channel alone! Yee-haw!" KWEX General Manager Steve Giust responded to an audience member's question about the Spanish-language station's sexist images of women by noting it had "many lovely ladies."

But the best comment came from Clear Channel's Glade: "If you can trust the American people to elect the president, then you can trust them to determine for themselves which station to listen to." Enough said.

By Lisa Sorg


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