WTVR-TV, the CBS affiliate in Richmond, Va.

The Federal Communications Commission Tuesday voted to drop the “main studio” rule that required radio and television broadcasters to have a responsive staff located near the communities they serve.

Supporters of the change, which was requested by industry insiders, agreed with FCC Chairman Ajit Pai that the policy was outdated in the digital age, since the community can interact with stations via email or social media.

The vote was 3-2, with two Democrats dissenting, according to a report in Broadcasting Cable.

The rule had been in place for about 80 years.

Pai said he thought the funds used to maintain a physical address could be used better elsewhere in a business, such as having more local programming.

However, there were some objections and concerns raised.

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Franklin Raff, who’s worked in broadcasting since before he was a station manager at age 20, noted a case in Minot, North Dakota, in 2002, in which a local presence was sorely needed.

“In Minot, North Dakota, in 2002, a train carrying caustic chemicals derailed, releasing deadly gas. Police tried to contact local radio stations to warn the public, to no avail. EAS failed. Phones went unanswered in the empty studios and offices of six radio stations – owned by one company – as a thousand people were injured and one died. Desperate citizens tuned in; satellite-fed deejays kept the hits coming,” he explained.

“The dereliction of the group in Minot was deemed a freak lapse in corporate responsibility and a gross violation of FCC regulations, namely the long-standing Main Studio Rule requiring stations to have a responsive physical presence in or near their communities.”

He noted the FCC has always maintained stations “must serve the needs and interests of the communities to which they are licensed.”

“The new logic is that by eliminating the cost of being in their communities, stations will be better able to serve their communities,” Raff said. “But experience shows, of course, stations leave and don’t return. ‘Community presence’ means tower lights on the skyline and the station ID at the top of the hour.”

At Radio and Music Pros, Democratic commissioner Mignon Clyburn was quoted saying: “Today is a solemn one, in the history of television and radio broadcasting. By eliminating the main studio rule in its entirety for all broadcast stations – regardless of size or location – the FCC signals that it no longer believes those awarded a license to use the public airwaves should have a local presence in their community.”

However, Commissioner Michael O’Rielly argued that the move “does not eliminate localism.”

The original idea was to provide viewers and listeners with easy access to local stations and management, but over the years the priorities changed, and in 1987 the rules first were loosened.

At that time, it became allowable to lower the number of programming hours done locally.

“The Main Studio Rule is a textbook example of a market-entry barrier whose deregulation serves the public interest,” said Kim Keenan, president of MMTC.

“In practice the rule drove capital away from multicultural broadcasters who were unable to operate as efficiently as other broadcasters who could house more stations in a single main studio. The commission has done the right thing by targeting this obsolete rule for repeal.”

Raff, however, asked, “How can a broadcast facility be ‘accessible and responsive to its community’ when it is not in the community, is not a facility, and cannot broadcast?”

He lamented that many broadcast studios “are long-abandoned.”

“Few groups even have a receptionist,” he said. “These are cost-cutting measures, and efficiency is good. But let us see these trends in context. Our industry is in the hands of very few players: two companies now own half of our country’s stations.”

He pointed out that the “well-intentioned” 1996 Telecommunications Act changed ownership rules so that near-monopolies could exist in most markets.

“It was billed to increase profitability and enhance consumer choice,” he said. “The result was also a decline in local service and – not coincidentally, for a medium whose unique selling proposition is local service – audience share and revenue. The ‘better for the consumer’ part – ‘competition’ – meant drastic programming cuts. Local radio came to offer what emergent smartphones and satellite radio did – along with interminable commercial breaks.”

Eventually, Raff said, the big question will be, “Why would anyone rely on radio?”

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