Monday, June 25, 2012

Freeform FM VS The FCC

I usually blame the death of free-form FM stations on consultants. It is in the nature of the consultant to see things in the narrowest of terms, as a set of constants instead of variables. They are despicable and we should shun them, but they do not bear all of the guilt in this case. There was another more organic, reactive cause that doesn't get enough credit in the usual narratives.

In August of 1971 the FCC ruled on a free-form FM station in Des Moines, 94.9 KFMG. This tiny decision may have had broader consequences. The story was so big it graced the cover of Bilboard. In early 1971 The Iowa Fine Music Broadcasting Corp., who had held the license since 1964 decided to sell the station. When KFMG  was bought by Stoner broadcasting they flipped format from a free form rock format to Top-40. The FCC normally does not consider programming, but this format change was contrary what what Stoner Broadcasting had stated only months earlier during the FCC approval process. Five staffers and the PD resigned immediately and filed a petition to reconsider. The "Committee to Free KFMG", had a victory in successfully pressuring the station to return to a rock format... but they did not return to the staff. [That same PD, Ron Sorenson recovered the call sign when it went up for grabs in 2007. More here]

The Committee  withdrew the petition after the rock format returned. But let me be clear here. They would have lost the case. Stoner gave in to public pressure, not legal pressure. But even while the FCC was fomenting another ruling on their refusal to hold judgement over programming... they issued a comment on programming. The Commission took the opportunity to warn station owners about the potential liability they carried as owners, and the dangers of a free form station. This was a message to station owners to voluntarily impose  stricter control over content. It was terse. The relevant passage is below:
"A free form rock format, like a free form classical format, or a free form anything format gives the announcer such control over the records to be played that it is inconsistent with the strict controls that licensee must exercise to avoid questionable practices."
It would be hard to misunderstand the message: Get the hippies off the air. The Committee to Free KFMG decided to push their luck. In February of 1972 they went back to the FCC with their lawyer, Tracey Western, asked that the FCC clarify their comments. They asked for a declaratory ruling and didn't get one. Instead the FCC's thinly veiled threat became fodder for debate in the trade magazines and sure enough free form stations were soon on the wane. More here.