We Now Interrupt Your Regularly Scheduled Programming: How Removing Radio’s Main Studio Rule Could Nationalize the Local Conversation

By:  Robert Bryson and Maryam Karimi

Adopted over 75 years ago, the “Main Studio Rule” requires that radio stations and broadcasters have a physical studio located in the area or near the area where their station transmits signals. On October 24, 2017, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to eliminate the Main Studio Rule.

Regulators cite the rise in use of social media and technology in support for the elimination of the Main Studio Rule. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai asserts the rule is unnecessary because most consumers listen to the radio through online platforms and other electronic methods divorced from geographic proximity.

According to a 2016 Nielson report of 228 million adults in the United States cited by Business Insider, radio reaches 93% of the US population. To put in perspective radio’s massive reach, television comes in second reaching approximately 89%, while all online platforms reach a disputed 37% to 83% of the U.S. adult population. These studies illustrate that traditional media – radio and television – remain the dominant force in reaching the broadest audience.

The Main Studio Rule, far from being unnecessary, is critical to ensure local control over radio broadcasts. Elimination of the rule will likely result in the same consolidation of stations seen in local television. For example, the Sinclair Broadcasting Group owns and operates over 190 US television stations and recently announced plans for a $3.9 billion takeover of Tribune Media Co., extending its reach to 75% of US households.

Sinclair Broadcasting Group requires its local stations to run segments that are produced by the national studio. The local stations integrate these national programs into local coverage, creating the appearance that the speaker is a local commentator or anchor. A well-known example is Mike Hyman’s series including The Point and Behind the Headlines with Mark Hyman. Sinclair Broadcasting Group has been criticized for deceptive practices that cloak its national programs within local news segments and for an overt conservative bent that isn’t directly addressed.

Sinclair Broadcasting is able to can broadcast from profitable facilities, cities or states away from their listeners and supplants local content with national programs.

Opponents of the main source rule further argue that the rule imposes excessive costs on broadcasters and these costs could be instead be used for investment and programming.

Those opponents are correct, the purpose of the Main Studio Rule is to encourage local control over radio programs and by increasing costs to discourage consolidation. The Sherman Anti-Trust Act also imposes costs on businesses, but no one thinks allowing monopolies is a good idea.

It is entirely conceivable what Sinclair Broadcasting did to local news, will happen to local radio. In another troubling sign, on November 16 the FCC will vote on the 1975 Newspaper-Broadcast Cross-Ownership rule, barring a single company from owning a broadcast station and newspaper in the same market.

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