Is this the best they can do?

I just got back from dropping a friend off at her third-shift job– I didn’t feel like listening to the “Ladies of the 80’s” set the volunteer DJ at our local community station was programming, so I decided to skip over to see if I could catch the tail end of Alice Cooper’s broadcast. Better one of his goofy stories, I figured, than have to listen to Expos√©…

Unfortunately, I had switched during a commercial break. I was just about to give the local public broadcasting’s satellite-beamed classical programming a shot when something caught my ear– a “Save the Manatees” public service announcement I had read sometimes at WDBX. I’d rather read about manatees than talk about some church group any day, so for a while, it seemed like I read about the manatees a lot on the air. I decided to stick around for a little bit to see how our respective readings differed.

Following the manatee PSA, there was another– this time for the Department of Homeland Security– something about establishing a place to meet with family following an emergency. Then another, and another, and another, often from the same campaign; one following the next for their 15 seconds of glory.

It was PSA hell. I can’t be sure how many aired before I joined in, but I counted 10 PSA’s during the break.

You’re probably wondering why any radio station would air 10 PSA’s in a row at 11:30 at night. The fact is, they have to do it sometime– because the airwaves are owned by the citizens of the United States, the FCC is mandated to insure that they are utilized for the “public interest, convenience, and necessity” of the people. Often, this is interpreted to mean playing a few crummy public service announcements for faceless government agencies free of charge.

Of course, airtime is valuable to radio corporations, and they’re not about to run a spot for saving manatees or preparing for disaster during any sort of peak listening time when it might actually reach a human being. Instead, these announcements (often paid for, I should mention, by the American people for use on their OWN airwaves) are relegated to the ghettos of the radio broadcast day where the potential loss of revenue is negligible; and nobody but lonely gas station attendants and insomniacs will notice the odd cluster of haphazard informational messages coming from the speaker.

Is this the best they can do?

When examining a case, judges sometimes refer to the letter of the law, and the spirit of the law. The spirit of our communications laws are that the radio is a valuable resource to be diligently maintained for the good of all citizens. However, radio corporations seem intent on pressing their case with actions keeping with the letter of the law– achieving nothing more than the bare minimum– a semblance of, and token nod to the people who actually own the radio spectrum these corporations so callously exploit each day.

2 Responses to “Is this the best they can do?”

  1. Graeme Says:

    It’s been quite some time since I’ve had anything to do with radio, but as far as I can recall from the time I was involved with my university’s radio station, it was required that DJs played one or two PSAs per hour. I don’t know if this was the station’s rule and was to ensure that PSAs were played throughout the day and not just in one block, as you described above, or whether this was a general broadcasting regulation. This was in Canada, so it will probably be legally at least a bit different from the case that you’re describing.

  2. startlingmoniker Says:

    At WDBX, we are directed to air/read at least one PSA during each show. I don’t think that there is any real law as to WHEN this has to occur (unlike station identification) but it certainly makes sense to air them at times when listeners are likely to hear them.

    On the other hand, we also provide a large amount of material that easily falls under “public interest”… local news and events programming, shows about environmental issues, etc. Not to mention that the shows are produced and staffed by local community volunteers!

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