The radio industry in the United States depends on the licensed use of publicly-owned airwaves. The Communications Act of 1934 established that, in exchange use of the spectrum, licensees were required to operate in the public interest, convenience, and necessity. This obligation required that licensees determine community needs and problems and then air responsive programming. In 1981, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) began deregulating the industry while still maintaining a scaled-back version of this requirement.
Academic research has identified geographic regions of the United States without a daily print newspaper. As radio stations are still nominally required by statute to serve their communities of license, this study sought to access whether the industry is capable of filling the local news void.
Using Public Value Theory as its general framework, this study employed a sample of radio stations in Illinois to attempt to determine what factors play a role in a radio station’s performance in creating public value. Using the theory of Dimensional Publicness, this study examined types of ownership, source of funding, and the extent to which any political control is exerted by the FCC to determine how these attributes may contribute to a radio station’s sum total public value creation over a specific amount of time.
Using documents required by the FCC and created quarterly by all broadcast licensees, this study found that non-commercial National Public Radio-affiliated stations were more likely to maximize public value creation. In commercial radio, privately-owned stations by a single owner in a smaller market were also more likely to maximize public value than their larger market counterparts owned by larger private regional and national or publicly-traded companies. Stations in areas not served by a daily newspaper were also less likely to create public value. And, radio stations, as a whole, are providing public value as a fraction of the quantity required prior to 1981’s deregulatory action.
The study also concluded that the FCC’s existing system for determining whether stations are meeting their public service obligations is broken and of little use to society.
Keywords: public value, public interest, publicness, radio, deregulation, Federal Communications Commission