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Broadcaster Accountability Workshop

Broadcasting is unique because traditionally, Radio and TV stations use frequencies in the air to broadcast their signals to listeners and viewers.  The courts have held that those frequencies - called "airwaves" - belong to the public.  As there are very few of these airwaves, the stations make a bargain with the public to use our air: in exchange for a free license to broadcast, the stations must "serve the public interest."

Most people don't know that we own the airwaves, and broadcasters don't publicize that fact. But in truth, radio and TV stations have a duty to serve the public.  If they do not, we can complain to the Federal Communications Commission and even Petition to remove the stations' licenses.

Broadcast stations make a mint once they get a license: as shown in Broadcast Blues, TV station profits can top 45 percent!  And where do stations make most of this profit? By selling  Political Ads. In the upcoming 2014 election, TV stations are expected to make $2.5 Billion from political ad sales - ads which often directly lie to the public.

How is that serving the Public Interest?  It's not.

It is time to engage our local broadcasters (not cable TV) and let them know we are keeping a close eye on them.  This workshop will give you the tools and strategies to hold your local broadcasters accountable to the public interest.

Strategy 1: Engage Your Broadcasters


Follow the successful model of the Sacramento Media Group: Form a local media watchdog group of concerned citizens and make an appointment to meet with local TV and Radio station management about your concerns.  We suggest two key items: ask for five minutes of daily political reporting in the 60 days leading up to elections, and ask for fact checking of political ads. Write reports about your meetings, and publish them on a website.  Issue a news release to local newspapers about the reports.  


Starting in 2004, SMG began meeting with local TV station management to ask each station for 5 minutes of daily political news coverage in the 60 days prior to an election.  The stations pretty much laughed us off.  But SMG issued a report on their responses and shared them with the local newspapers.  That local TV broadcasters refused to provide 5 minutes of real political reporting was highly embarrassing to the stations. In 2006, SMG again asked the stations for 5 minutes of daily political coverage; again, the stations ignored us.  Again, we issued reports and news releases. By 2008, the stations took SMG's request seriously, and today, people in the entire Sacramento region benefit from real political reporting - all because of a few dedicated activists. Yes, it took a few election cycles to succeed: this is a marathon, not a sprint. But we found that just making the broadcasters aware that there was a local watchdog group keeping an eye on them was very helpful.


Many of us are upset about the Supreme Court's decisions on Citizens United and McCutcheon, which have opened the floodgates of money into political campaigns. But where does most of that money go?  Directly into broadcasters' back pockets.  Broadcasters, especially TV stations, are making billions from the sale of political advertisements, many of which are flat out untrue. Making billions off of lying ads clearly does not serve the public interest, so start holding your local stations accountable!

Here are the rules:  if a CANDIDATE purchases time for a political ad, the station must take the ad, and it may not vet the ad in any way. Candidates, for all practical purposes, have the legal right to lie to the public as much as they can get away with.

However, stations are not required to air any THIRD PARTY ads (those paid for entities outside of the candidates themselves, such as PAC groups.)  If a station does accept the ad, it really should fact check the ad to make sure they are not misleading the public.  In addition, if an ad does lie to the public, that station may in certain circumstances be held LIABLE.

If you see a suspect ad, especially one which has been proven false by groups like FactCheck or Politifact, contact the station and raise hell!   


When you have concerns or complaints about local broadcasting, write a letter to the station and tell them so. Emails are good, but written letters sent through the mail are even better.  Unfortunately, recent FCC rule changes mean your letter will not appear in the public files (learn more below.) We encourage you to email your letters to act@mediaactioncenter.net so we can follow up on egregious complaints. 

                                                    Strategy 2: Inspect the Public Files 


Because We the People own the airwaves, stations are required to keep public files available for public inspection.  We used to be able to drop by our local TV and radio stations any Monday through Friday during normal business hours and ask to see the files, but boots on the ground activism (see story below) changed the rules so you can now access them online.


As owners of the public airwaves, radio and TV broadcasters must report to We the People. There is a myriad of information you have the right to see about the operation of your local broadcasters, but what I find most interesting are the political files.  You can discover who is purchasing political ads and at what price, information critical to ferreting out money in politics.  Our allies at Campaign Legal Center and the Sunlight Foundation have recently filed a legal complaint with the FCC, demanding more transparency in political files.



There is nothing more empowering than walking into a broadcast station like you own the place to inspect files - and nothing more unsettling to broadcasters, as well.  In 2011, the Media Action Center, Sacramento Media Group, and Occupy groups across the nation did nine public file inspections at Clear Channel stations on the same day. See video here of the Sacramento Occupation.  The Sacramento Bee covered the story, as did most local TV stations.

As a result, Clear Channel agreed to keep progressive talk radio on the air in San Francisco, and started providing HD progressive radio in Milwaukee.

Then MAC, SMG, and Occupy met with Clear Channel station management about election coverage.  We issued and publicized the following report: http://www.mediaactioncenter.net/2012/02/statement-and-suggestions-concerning.html .  As a result, Sacramento's General Manager was fired.

That's called IMPACT.

These actions clearly spooked broadcasters, who had been resisting putting public files online for easy public inspection. It took until 2016, but the FCC finally ordered all public files be placed online. The downside is they no longer include letters from the public, so real complaints about station misbehavior is not open to the public. If you have a real grievance about your local broadcaster, please write us at act@mediaactioncenter.net .