The Telecommunications Act of 1996 deregulated the radio industry, removing restrictions on how many stations one entity could own in a single market. It was written by Republican lawmakers in Washington, D.C., under considerable pressure from corporate media lobbyists. Subsequently, large national media corporations such as Citadel and Clear Channel began buying up small, locally owned stations in an unprecedented grab for control of the airwaves and, more to the point, advertising dollars.
John Rook, a former Spokane station owner who has spent a career in radio, has seen the effects of media deregulation from ground zero.
"My game is over," he says. "The Telecommunications Act was a major problem for me. It was unbelievable. Never in my life had I seen such a frenzy of sales-oriented broadcasters."
Rook got his start in broadcasting in the late 1950s and eventually worked his way into program director positions in some of the biggest markets in the country, including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. He purchased his first Spokane station in 1983. By the mid-'90s, he had a small group of stations including KCDA and the old KEZE. A few years later, he was forced to sell them all. Now he lives in Coeur d'Alene.
"Citadel and Clear Channel and the rest had it all wrapped up, how they were going to divide up the market, " Rook says. "And I was one that had to be taken out. I sued to block what they were doing, and the Department of Justice said, 'Yep, you certainly have an anti-trust case there -- go get 'em.' I spent $1.2 million battling them, and they finally drove me out of business."
Like many consumer and media watchdog groups, Rook is concerned by the recent moves within the FCC to further deregulate the media industry. He refers to FCC chairman Michael Powell (Colin Powell's son, by the way) as a "poster boy for big business."
"If we let him have his way, there will be no rules," warns Rook. "In fact, Powell has said there shouldn't be an FCC. As far as he's concerned, his job is to let the industry control itself. What a wonderful idea. Deregulation feeds corruption. When you take the rules off the highway, you're gonna have a lot of accidents. And the same thing is happening in the media. Instead of looking at what happened with radio and saying, 'Oh my God,' they're saying, 'The big media companies want to take a bigger bite. Let's give it to them.'"