The 1996 Telecommunications Act - Is Radio Better Off?  

Part I

This study tells the story of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and its aftermath. In many ways, the Telecom Act failed to serve the public and did not deliver on its promise of more competition, more diversity, lower prices, more jobs and a booming economy.

Instead, the public got more media concentration, less diversity, and higher prices.

Bridge Ratings recently completed interviewing members of traditional radio's four constituencies for an understanding of the perceptions related to the state of the industry ten years later. Listeners, advertising buyers, radio executives and members of congress were asked several questions including "Is traditional radio better off today than it was ten years ago?"


Three-quarters of the groups interviewed felt radio was not better off. Our study found that group heads and radio executives perceive radio to be better off than it was before passage of the Telecommunications bill.

Over 10 years, the legislation was supposed to save consumers $550 billion, including $333 billion in lower long-distance rates, $32 billion in lower local phone rates, and $78 billion in lower cable bills. But cable rates have surged by about 50 percent, and local phone rates went up more than 20 percent.

Industries supporting the new legislation predicted it would add 1.5 million jobs and boost the economy by $2 trillion. By 2003, however, telecommunications’ companies’ market value had fallen by about $2 trillion, and they had shed half a million jobs.

And study after study has documented that profit-driven media conglomerates are investing less in news, programming and information, and that local news in particular is failing to provide viewers with the information they need to participate in their democracy.

Why did this happen? In some cases, industries agreed to the terms of the Act and then went to court to block them. By leaving regulatory discretion to the Federal Communications Commission, the Act gave the FCC the power to issue rules that often sabotaged the intent of Congress. Control of the House passed from Democrats to Republicans, more sympathetic to corporate arguments for deregulation.

And while corporate special interests all had a seat at the table when this bill was being negotiated, the public did not. Nor were average citizens even aware of this legislation’s great impact on how they got their entertainment and information, and whether it would foster or discourage diversity of viewpoints, radio programming options and a marketplace of ideas, crucial to democratic discourse.

Now, as Congress once again takes up major legislation to change telecommunications policy, and as it revisits the Telecom Act, major industries have had nearly a decade to reinforce their relationships with lawmakers and the Administration through political donations and lobbying:

• Since 1997, just eight of the country’s largest and most powerful media and telecommunications companies, their corporate parents, and three of their trade groups, have spent more than $400 million on political contributions and lobbying in Washington, according to a Common Cause analysis of federal records.
• Verizon Communications, SBC Communications Inc., AOL Time Warner, General Electric Co./NBC, News Corp./Fox, Viacom Inc./CBS, Comcast Corp., Walt Disney Co./ABC, and the National Association of Broadcasters, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, and the United States Telecom Association together gave nearly $45 million in federal political donations since 1997.
Of that total, $17.8 million went to Democrats and $26.9 million went to Republicans.
• These eight companies and three trade associations also spent more than $358 million on lobbying in Washington, since 1998, when lobbying expenditures were first required to be disclosed.

All this investment once again gives radio and television broadcasters, telephone companies, long-distance providers, cable systems and Internet companies a huge advantage over average citizens.

Part Two


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