Last week the FCC denied a petition that challenged WGBH-FM’s license renewal because the station moved its classical music to WCRB in 2009 and cancelled other music programs.
A Boston media advocacy group – The Committee for Community Access (“CCA’) charged in their petition that WGBH’s format change was a …near-total expungement of music from the airwaves. The change, CCA argued …was done to transform the station into a full-time news and talk station, and therefore limited format diversity in the Boston area.
By declining to get involved, the FCC again confirmed that it does not regulate programming changes. The hands-off policy began with the famous WNCN, New York case in 1974.
Scroll down to read the WNCN story and see a video about the abrupt 1974 format switch from classical to rock music.
DO PUBLIC RADIO LISTENERS HAVE A RIGHT TO BE SERVED?
CCA took a unique approach, asking the FCC to …hold public radio licensees to a higher standard than commercial licensees when it comes to adequately serving the listening public. The CCA petition said that public radio listeners have a …First Amendment right to be served.
The FCC didn’t agree. In denying the petition, the FCC said: The FCC’s Format Policy states that market forces and competition determine the formats of individual radio stations, not the commission itself.
Further, the commission renewed WGBH’s licensee and reaffirmed their 1974 WNCN decision to stay out of programming changes.
WHEN BEETHOVEN ROLLED OVER IN NEW YORK
In 1974 WNCN was one of two commercial classical FM stations in New York. (The other was WQXR, now a noncom operated by WNYC.) WNCN was owned by National Science Network and was intended for background music (along with commercial messages) intended for doctor and dentist offices.
National Science Network decided to take advantage of rising FM license values and sold 104.3 FM to Starr Broadcasting for $3,000,000.
Starr was a privately owned company that wanted to go public. It was run by two recent Dartmouth graduates, brothers Peter and Michael Starr. Conservative writer and spokesman William F. Buckley was behind Starr brothers financially. It was almost like family. Peter and Michael Starr were Buckley’s yacht boys out on the Hamptons.
[Disclosure: I worked for Starr Broadcasting in 1967 – 1969 when they owned Top 40 stations in Kansas City, Omaha and Sioux Falls.]
The Starr Brothers were under pressure by Buckley to establish a base in New York in anticipation for the upcoming stock offering. When Starr bought the license for WNCN in 1974, they announced their intention to change the call letters to WQIV and dump classical music and air kick-ass rock. WNCN’s listeners were outraged.
MEET THE WNCN LISTENER GUILD
The classical music fans organized The WNCN Listener Guild to try to deny the sale to Starr and the switch to rock n roll. The Guild filed petitions with the FCC arguing many of the same points CCA made recently against WGBH’s license renewal.
Up to this point, the FCC’s role in format changes was not clear. The FCC used The Guilds’ complaint as a test case for new policy: Let market forces, rather than regulation, determining a station’s programming. This is a core Buckley philosophy.
In the FCC ruling in favor of Starr and Buckley, the commission said:
…the public interest is best served by promoting diversity in a radio station's entertainment formats through market forces and competition among broadcasters, and that review of an applicant station's format changes…would not advance the radio-listening public's welfare, and would deter innovation in radio programming.
And this is still the way it is today.
The Guild continued its legal efforts until 1980 when the US Supreme Court refused to intervene. Meanwhile, Guild members tied up Starr’s stock scheme. It turned out that WQIV was a quick flop. Starr sold 104.3 in less than a year. Today the station is rocker WAXQ.
You can hear the tension behind the scenes as the ownership and format changed on November 2, 1974 in this mini-movie I created earlier this year: