July 1, 2004

Rapid City Memories: Chicago media activists embark on roadtrip to South Dakota to face the FCC

This is my recount of a trip I made to South Dakota to attend a May 2004 hearing held by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and how that hearing and that trip is important to Chicagoans and citizens nationwide. But first, some background.

As many Third Coast Press readers may know, the FCC--led by market dogmatist Michael Powell (Colin Powell's son)--tried in 2003 to ram through a series of dramatic changes in its media ownership rules which would enable a single company to own most of the media in a single city. This threat to media and cultural diversity elicited an unprecedented outcry of protest against the FCC, as well as an emergency court order blocking the FCC's rules and a number of consequences which continue today.

One such consequence is the creation of the FCC's Localism Task Force, which Michael Powell himself founded. The purpose of this Task Force was to address the concerns raised by the public about localism during the media ownership proceeding". As part of this task, the Localism Task Force convened a series of six official public hearings across the United States to solicit input from citizens, whose proceedings go on the record and serve as the basis for informing FCC policy. It's a rare instance for "ordinary" people to contribute to FCC policy.

The only on of these hearings scheduled for the Midwest was held in Rapid City, South Dakota. Why Rapid City? It happens to be the hometown of one of the FCC's Commissioners -- Democrat Johnathan Adelstein. Plus, it is the smallest of the six cities chosen for localism hearings and was intended to represent media concerns in smaller and rural communities. The conspiracy theorist in me also notes that Rapid City is distant from many of the larger communities in the Midwest, where there has been considerable organizing on media issues, and may thus perhaps deter many media activists from going to Rapid city.

But it didn't deter me, or three fellow media activists. Four of us rented a car and made the fourteen-hour 950-mile-long roadtrip along I-90 to Rapid City. We left on Tuesday morning, May 25, traveled all day Tuesday to Rapid City, attended the six-plus-hour-long hearing on Wednesday, May 26, and spent all day Thursday, May 27, driving back to Chicago.

The Rapid City Journal (the city's newspaper) reported that 285 people attended the hearing (a success, since organizers were aiming to get 200 attendees). Four Chicagoans drove across four states to count themselves among those 285, but three of the FCC's five commissioners just couldn't find time to attend--all three republicans, all of whom voted in favor of those controversial media ownership changes.

Michael Powell did come to Rapid City, but left on the morning of the hearing's date and didn't attend, ostensibly because he was called to Washington DC for an emergency meeting at the White House. (Yo, Michael! Have you ever heard of a speaker phone! Want to borrow mine?)

Whatever the reason, Powell probably didn't want another localism hearing like the one in San Antonio in January, where activists took a cue from fans of Star Wars and sat in line for more than twelve hours before the hearing to preempt corporate lobbyists and get first crack at giving public comment. In the wake of that success, the FCC changed the public comment proceedings for Rapid City: random numbers were assigned to all incoming public participants and then drew those numbers at random.

The media concerns raised ranged widely. One man who complained he couldn't get Monday Night Football and asked what the FCC could do about it. Local troops stationed at nearby Ellsworth Air Force Base came to praise coverage from the local Fox and ABC affiliates. The local police lieutenant praised the media for their Amber Alerts.

But critical media activists also made their voices heard. The two FCC commissioners who did attend -- Adelstein and the FCC's senior democrat, Michael Copps -- were probably the leading media activists there. They made point after damning point of the state of media. My jaw fell to the ground when the chair of the hearing, Jonathan Adelstein, made the only mention during the whole hearing of the infamous Minot incident, where a chemical train leak which hospitalized in the town of Minot, North Dakota, didn't get aired on the radio because nearly all of the radio stations were owned by Clear Channel and the only Clear Channel office in Minot was unstaffed at the time of the hearing.

I came to give my take regarding localism in Chicago's media, since this was the only localism hearing organized for the Midwest. In the two minutes I had, I said that media in Chicago which successfully responded to local concerns would draw in the local community in aspects of the media-ownership, management, staff, funding base, and as providers of content. Thus, I encouraged the FCC to enact policies which would allow local communities to be their own media, like the Low Power FM initiative which the FCC approved in February 2004 (and which the Senate brought legislation for on June 5, 2004).

South Dakota activists had their say on issues which you'd find in most communities nationally: Rapid City's self-proclaimed political gadfly raised the point that nine hours of the local talk-radio station was eaten up by Rush Limbaugh, Dr. Laura, and G. Gordon Liddy (localism, hello?).

An organizer with Rapid City's chapter of Food Not Bombs who called for a cable access network in Rapid City. A radical sociology professor at Oglala Lakota College who organized studies about issues pertaining to the health and well-being the nearby reservations would get almost no press coverage. One of the hearing's panelists, the president of Oglala Lakota College, decried press hype of an overblown voting scandal in 2002 in which Indians were unjustly accused of rigging votes.

Indeed, native rights' issues recurred throughout the hearing, and highlighted an undercurrent of racism which I felt permeated the hearing. The very venue of the hearing, the Surbeck Center at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, was built from stolen lands and stole resources, and holding the venue there was regarded as an insult by many traditional peoples. One scheduled commentator -- Sunny Skyhawk, founder of American Indians in Film and Television -- made probably the most dramatic action of the entire hearing by declining to give his scheduled comment when the FCC changed the amount of time he had to give his comment without notifying him in advance.

And don't think Chicago is immune from such issues: if you're reading this paper anywhere in the Chicago area, you're reading this on unceded Sioux land. Portions of the state of Illinois also comprise unceded claims of Kickapoo, and Sac and Fox land titles. Plus there's an escalating campaign (which includes Chicago) to remove the racist University of Illinois mascot, Chief Illiniwek. As Ward Churchill once remarked: "The kinds of things which happen 'out there', aren't always 'out there'. They're right here."

In all, the hearing lasted nearly six hours. Three more hearings are scheduled in Monterey, California (announced for July 21); Portland, Maine; and Washington DC. The likelihood that the comments at these hearings will tangibly impact policy remains unclear, but not counted as very high. But that's not to dismiss the value of these hearings; they help make matters of media politics the stuff of public discourse and public participation, and helps to build a movement which eventually will win changes. Plus, it was clear that the hearing was taken to a new level of importance when four people cared enough to take part that they -- we -- spent driving over two whole freaking days.

I concluded my remarks to the FCC as follows: "I'd like to address this more to the audience here and those who can hear or see these words. There has been a lot of popular organizing in Rapid City and nearby for this hearing, and I'd just like to say: Don't let it end with this hearing. I encourage people to stay involved in organizing on media issues, both nationally with groups like Free Press (www.freepress.net) and Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (www.fair.org), and with your own local groups and local initiatives."

The full proceedings of the Rapid City hearing have been posted online at www.fcc.gov/localism. Plus, the FCC is accepting public comment for its Localism Task Force; you can contribute on the FCC's website."