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FCC holding hearing on media consolidation
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A group of Twin Cities residents got together to prepare testimony before the FCC. (MPR Photo/Marisa Helms)
A commissioner from the Federal Communications Commission is in the Twin Cities to solicit public comment on media consolidation. The visit is part of a nationwide tour by the two Democrats on the commission. They were the lone dissenters on the FCC ruling last year increasing the number of media outlets that a single company could own.

St. Paul, Minn. — Seventy percent of the media Americans consume each day is owned by five media conglomerates -- Viacom, Time Warner, Disney, News Corporation, and General Electric.

FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein says the concentration of news and entertainment in the hands of a few big companies means consumers are losing out.

"They're frustrated with the increasing crassness and sensationalism," he said. "They're frustrated with the lack of serious coverage of news and local affairs, and they're frustrated by what they sense is a homogenization - what I call the McDonaldization of the American media, where there isn't really the fresh perspective that people want."

Adelstein is one of two Democratic FCC commissioners who opposed a ruling last year that essentially allowed the big media companies to get bigger.

The ruling was immediately and roundly criticized. Adelstein says the FCC heard from three million citizens in opposition to the ruling. A bipartisan congressional effort to defeat the ruling followed the public dissent, and eventually led to a lawsuit. A district court in Pennsylvania is now telling the FCC to start over again with its rules on media ownership.

Adelstein says one of the FCC's biggest mistakes with the ruling was not seeking public input before taking the vote.

He says the town meeting in St. Paul is part of a nationwide tour. He says the information he gathers on the road will inform deliberations on the direction of media ownership.

The St. Paul stop will include a panel discussion on local news and another on media diversity. The commission will then allow about two hours of public testimony. Each person has two minutes to speak.

Ahmed Wassie of Minneapolis attended a recent workshop to prepare his FCC testimony. He says he's concerned that media ownership concentration makes it nearly impossible for minorities and immigrants to gain access to the broadcast spectrum.

"There are thousands of people that their voices are not heard," Wassie said. "We need public access, we need low-watt radios for our communities so people could communicate among each other. We don't hate these big companies to profit sometimes, but we don't want them to take everything from us, either."

Wassie and others who plan to address the FCC say the big media companies are using the public's airwaves for their own profit, and are not responsive to consumers.

But those who support consolidation say there's more to the story.

"I don't believe in a blanket approach to characterizing the effects of consolidation either in favor of the public interest or against the public interest," says Chicago-based communications lawyer Warren Lavey.

Lavey has represented media conglomerates including News Corporation, which owns Fox television, the New York Post, and numerous other media outlets.

"In some cases, consolidation can create opportunities for greater media and diversity by making broadcasters financially viable when they wouldn't otherwise been," he said. "And by creating a pool of resources that can be used to develop local news and content."

Commercial media ownership in the Twin Cities is dominated by Disney and Clear Channel. Clear Channel's ownership includes radio stations, billboards, television stations and live music venues. Its holdings in Minnesota include seven radio stations in the Twin Cities.

Local company vice president Dan Seeman says Clear Channel is using the public's airwaves responsibly.

"We're a big company, and we're big in this market, but in each of our markets we have reached out to the local communities," he said. "And our operators, we live here, we're from here, we raise our families here."

Those who testify are expected to invoke Clear Channel as an example of why media ownership should be more diverse. Seeman says he'll attend the FCC meeting not to testify, but to listen.

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