Why Lobbying Matters For Local Broadcasters
With a new Congress coming in January, now might be a good time to think about the critical role television general managers play in the national legislative process.
2022 marks 110 years since the federal government first began to issue radio licenses. Since that time, the United States has enjoyed the freest — and unique — system of radio and television in the world.
Unlike most countries, our government does not operate stations, nor does it dictate content. Thanks to the First Amendment, which is also unique, American broadcasters enjoy the right to produce and air programming without government oversight.
Sadly, broadcasters do not enjoy the same absolute First Amendment protection as newspapers. Television stations operate under federally issued licenses using spectrum which, under our system, is owned by the people. That opens the door to regulation.
In an ideal world, broadcasters take the position that federal regulation should be limited to technical issues. That has obviously never been the case. Congress and its appointed administrators have a long history of creating rules and regulations that are sometimes logical, sometime onerous and sometimes a minefield of contradictions.
For instance, the government dictates specific rules regarding children’s programming on television, including length, time of day, age appropriateness and other considerations. Any variance from those rules can lead to large fines. However, the government does not have the right to regulate actual content, nor can the government ask for advance approval. If that sounds murky, it is.
Congress has delegated day-to-day governance to the Federal Communications Commission, a theoretically nonpartisan agency that is anything but. Whichever party holds the White House also holds a three-person commission majority, including the chair. The commission is currently deadlocked because confirmation of a third Democrat is being held up in the Senate.
Unfortunately, the combination of congressional oversight and federal bureaucracy has often made life difficult for broadcasters. There are many examples, but one of the most notorious was the Fairness Doctrine, a regulation that came so close to dictating content, it became a political tool to harass stations and a major headache during license renewal. My first station had a department of four people assigned to Fairness Doctrine issues and station license renewal.
Thankfully the Fairness Doctrine is long gone, but important new issues seem to crop up daily.
Hopefully you have already read Emily Barr’s insightful column on the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act currently before Congress, but if not please do so now. It is a great example of why local general managers must raise their voices about a current issue.
In the case of the JCPA, Google, Facebook, Apple and other opponents are well-funded, pouring a fortune into political campaigns and direct lobbying. Broadcasters do not have the means to compete dollar-for-dollar, so we must constantly make our case on the merits of our arguments.
Another example is retransmission consent, without which many stations would have closed their news departments years ago for lack of adequate funding. Opponents of the rules, such as AT&T and Verizon, also pour a fortune into lobbying. Again, if it comes down to just campaign contributions, broadcasters lose.
What broadcasters can do is build strong relationships with their representatives in the House and Senate. Those relationships are our best tools for leveling the playing field.
I’m sorry to say that not every general manager understands just how critical their personal role is. If you happen to be one of those, here is a brief primer.
Start by making sure you are involved with your state association. The National Association of Broadcasters sets priorities, lobbies nationally and is an incredible resource, but the state associations are the unheralded organizations that do the hard work on the ground. Your state association is your best resource for coordination of important messages.
Every association is advised by seasoned communications attorneys who are fully versed on the ins and outs of both Congress and the FCC. I was fortunate to learn from two of the best, the legendary Wade Hargrove and the equally talented Mark Prak, but there are many other fine attorneys in this very specialized field.
Your next step is to start a relationship with both of your senators and each house member whose district your station serves. This is not hard. Just make sure your news department knows that every time one of these office holders visits the station, they are brought by your office to say hello. This is your best chance to talk about the vital role your organization plays in the communities you both serve.
Don’t start asking for support until you have an actual relationship. Better to begin by asking the senator or member what issues they see as important. I once created a local public service project with a U.S. senator that later led to a much bigger one involving virtually every television station in the state. It came about simply because the senator and I trusted each other. In order to keep the campaign from becoming political, the senator was not publicly involved, but he worked in the background, opening doors and raising funding. If you think that project gave him a greater appreciation for the power of local television and its need to be preserved, you are right.
The best relationships are those built slowly and honestly. Once you become someone the office holder knows, your issues will be heard. By the way, you should be doing the same thing with state and local politicians.
Be careful about what you ask, but never be shy about the great things your station does for your mutual constituents. Letters after major events, such as outstanding hurricane coverage, are always appropriate.
Once involved with your state association, a great way to begin honing your skills is to attend the annual meeting NAB holds with state associations in Washington.
Major speakers are heard, issues are discussed in depth, priorities set. It is a perfect time for general managers to understand current regulatory issues and why they matter.
Part of the D.C. meeting is an opportunity to meet with your senators and members as part of a group of general managers from your state. For those new to lobbying, this is an advanced education. You get to observe seasoned broadcasters in action.
As much as lobbying in D.C. matters, an even better way to make your case is on your home turf. Every senator and representative has a local office. You need to know the head of that office. That person is your key to local contact with the politician, setting up everything from special meetings to lunches.
There is much more we could talk about, but here is the most important point: Our industry is in the process of resetting in ways that will directly affect your future. You have a personal stake in the outcome. Do not take that responsibility lightly.
To protect the future of local television, every local general manager must do their part. The place to start is with your state association. The time to start is right now.
Hank Price is a media consultant. His second book, Leading Local Television, has become a standard text for television general managers. In a 30-year general management career, Price led TV stations for Hearst, CBS and Gannett, including WBBM Chicago, KARE Minneapolis, WVTM Birmingham, Ala., and both WXII and WFMY in Greensboro/Winston Salem, N.C. Earlier, he was a consultant with Frank N. Magid Associates. Price also spent 15 years as senior director of Northwestern University’s Media Management Center. He is currently director of leadership development for the School of Journalism and New Media at Ole Miss.