There is a vacant lot at the 5300 block of El Paso Drive, roughly halfway between the medical school and Fox Plaza in the south central section of the city. A bricked-up tan building and stripped concrete slab are all that remain as evidence of any economic activity that once took place there. Current property tax rolls don’t even list any owner, though a check of the land history shows the most recent deed holder as the University of Texas. A portable storage bin near the rear of the lot, next to an irrigation ditch, bears the UTEP logo, and a vague reference to water research of some kind. There is otherwise no sign, no way of knowing this abandoned building once housed a 1970s broadcasting juggernaut that baby boomers like me remember as KINT 98.
I remember moving to El Paso in my freshmen year of high school, knowing not a soul, and finding solace in the free form album rock sounds of KINT-FM 97.5. By the middle of my sophomore year, however, the station yielded to economic forces and switched formats to contemporary top 40 hits. It certainly worked out for them, as KINT 98 went on to dominate the local radio ratings through the rest of the decade. For me as a young rocker, not so much, as El Paso went without any album rock station for nearly two years, but the experience motivated me toward getting into the business. I went on to work at several stations, both here and Corpus Christi, for two decades after graduating high school, until I got into teaching, and I remain interested in the broadcast business to this date.
So I felt the same letdown upon hearing of a recent decision by the Federal Communications Commission as I did losing the rock station of my youth. The FCC ruled on Tuesday, October 24 along party lines to revoke the 77-year-old Main Studio Rule, which required radio and TV licensees to originate studio programming in the communities they serve. The justification given by industry groups and conglomerates such as the National Association of Broadcasters and iHeart Radio is that the proliferation of social media allows audiences to interact with stations wherever they might be, bypassing the need to even employ local personalities. Radio and TV stations have been streaming content on the web to distant audiences for years, after all, so eliminating local studios was touted as the next logical step forward in media consolidation.
It has been a long, disheartening process to witness. The FCC once mandated diverse ownership of broadcast properties, which meant most stations were controlled by local or regional business people, because no corporate entity could hold more than a dozen or so licenses. I can still tick off the names of stations owners I knew of or even met in my younger days— Wyler, Daniels, Taber, Phillips, Haston, Roderick, Hervey, Thompson, Marks, Sloan… But as more stations filled the dial and available spectrum disappeared, the cost of obtaining a license increased exponentially. By the mid 1980s, several El Paso FM stations went dark for weeks on end when their owners became bankrupt and ceased operations, including the once mighty KINT 98. Toward the end of the Reagan administration, the FCC underwent a sea change of deregulation, from eliminating the Fairness Doctrine, allowing right-wing bomb-throwers to begin airing baseless propaganda with impunity, to relaxing strict ownership rules. No land or gold rush in American history could compare to what happened afterward, as fewer and fewer owners grabbed more and more licenses.
There is certainly some merit in the concept of the “citizen journalist,” but I wouldn’t recommend it as a career path. Nonetheless, a filing by the Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council, an industry front group, argued that the work of local journalists could easily be replaced by random contributions from social media users. In other words, a craft one used to perfect over many years in internships, college, and eventually a steady job, could now be practiced by anyone, resulting in massive cost savings to broadcast companies. Uber-style freelance journalism might enable swift coverage of the latest freeway wreck, house fire, or, heaven forfend, mass shooting, but probably will do less than nothing when it comes to digging up dirt on corrupt politicians and shady business practices, because these sorts of things must be done by people who aren’t worried about where their next paycheck will come from.
Besides, the trends governing the operations of the same companies making these claims are moving in the opposite direction. Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns CBS 4 and FOX 14 locally, requires its stations to air several hours of centrally produced programming, much of it partial to right-wing policy and interests, every week. A Sinclair station in Toledo, Ohio, has had its local news operation outsourced to another affiliate in South Bend, Indiana, more than 150 miles away. The public interest group Free Press, one of a few expressing opposition to the FCC’s move, noted that only 14 percent of local TV stations bothered to employ a reporter in their state capitals, raising the question of who exactly’s guarding the henhouse anymore.
Mass communication is a powerful force, and Big Broadcasting acts accordingly. In the new Wild West era of unlimited campaign contributions and spending, low labor costs for any enterprise can translate into more money filling the pockets of easily influenced politicians, turning into ever sweeter government favors for industry interests. CBS chief Les Moonves said as much when he went before shareholders last year and cheered on the ratings-driven media circus that the Trump campaign was putting on display. Moonves even gets to play it both ways, as evidenced by Stephen Colbert’s nightly anti-Trump rants on his hugely popular Late Show. Now Trump’s FCC, one of the only potential checks on the power of people like Moonves, has delivered the goods.
I was lucky to get into the business when I did, and probably even luckier to get out in time. It seems that soon, the only sign of a local broadcast presence in any but the biggest cities will be a few lonely candy-striped towers connected to a satellite dish.