AUSTIN, Texas — Less than two weeks after the coastal part of the Lone Star State was devastated by Hurricane Harvey, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai delivered the keynote address for the 2017 Radio Show Luncheon in Austin, Texas.
The storm and its aftermath were clearly at the forefront of the chairman’s mind. After thanking NAB President/CEO Gordon Smith for his introduction, Pai immediately acknowledged the hardworking first responders and the many people affected by Hurricane Harvey, in addition to FCC staffers who were out in the field working to fix communications infrastructure, to whom he extended a personal thanks.
“But as saddened as I am by Harvey’s destruction, the past week’s events have also left me heartened and hopeful. Once again, we saw that the worst of tragedies brings out the best in the American people.”
He also told the audience he had the opportunity to visit Houston this week and see the damage and recovery work firsthand.
“But you can’t talk about the heroes of Hurricane Harvey without talking about broadcasters,” Pai said. He went on to list stories of stations who sprang into action — including “CBS Radio’s KIKK in Pasadena, Texas, usually broadcasts only in the daytime, but it petitioned the FCC for authority to provide emergency information around-the-clock. We were happy to grant that request within one hour,” Pai said (and did not fail to note how unusual the speed was).
Ultimately, Pai said “The spirit of service and community we saw so publicly on display during this devastating storm, and throughout its aftermath, is in your DNA. I think that’s a big reason why 93% of Americans still regularly tune in to radio. And that’s why, during Harvey, an enormous number of people relied on radio to get critical emergency information.”
Pai then transitioned to deliver a status report. The first item should be of no surprise to broadcasters familiar with the chairman: AM revitalization. In the 2016 AM translator window, the commission received nearly 1,100 applications and granted almost 95% of these requests, and the recently concluded window ended with more than 1,000 applications for new translators — the total number is about equal to “half of all licensed AM stations nationwide.” He also noted that 698 of the applications in the most recent window came from Class D AM stations, many of which are daytimers seeking to operate on a fulltime basis.
He then moved on to discuss efforts to clear the “regulatory underbrush.”
First, at the FCC’s September meeting, they “will vote on an order that would relax certain technical rules applicable to AM broadcasters operating directional antenna arrays in order to ease the regulatory and financial burdens faced by these broadcasters, a draft of which will be shared Thursday with the public.
And in May, the FCC launched a comprehensive review of the 1,000 pages of media rules, with an eye toward modernization. For Pai’s part, he plans to share “at least one Notice of Proposed Rulemaking teeing up outdated or unnecessary media regulations that should be eliminated or modified” with his fellow commissioners each month — and the first of these, a repeal of the requirement for physical copies Code of Federal Regulations, will be brought to a vote at the September meeting.
In a more dramatic and perhaps more controversial stance, Pai reaffirmed his support for eliminating the main studio rule. He cited a belief that physical location is no longer the only assurance that a community can interact with a station or read its public file — both now or soon can be done online. He also shared an anecdote of one broadcaster who chose not to build an AM station in a particular town because the “main studio rule is a killer; the cost to maintain a staff … would make the construction of this facility a ticket of doom.” Pai said this fall will be the time to vote to repeal it.
The chairman then switched to enforcement of the FCC’s rules and praised Commissioner O’Rielly’s efforts to champion a crackdown on pirate radio.
And to prove he’s not soft on crime, Pai reminded the audience, “Since I became chairman in January, the commission’s Enforcement Bureau has issued 55 Notices of Unlicensed Operation, several Notices of Apparent Liability, and six Forfeiture Orders against pirate broadcasters. We’ve cracked down on illegal operators all across the United States, from California to Kentucky, and up and down the East Coast from Florida to Massachusetts. You can rest assured we will not just continue, but intensify this effort in the months to come. Our message to pirate operators is clear: the FCC will not tolerate unauthorized, illegal broadcasts, and we will use all of the tools within our disposal to end them.”
He then closed with a recognition of Austin’s special relationship with radio and broadcasting (and a dig at Texas A&M’s football team).
You can read the full transcript of his prepared remarks here.