Court decision cheers radio activists W. Phila.'s Prometheus Radio Project was a leader in challenging relaxed FCC media-ownership rules.

Posted: June 26, 2004

Vindicated.

That's how activists at West Philadelphia's Prometheus Radio Project say they felt yesterday after a U.S. appeals court told the Federal Communications Commission to rewrite aspects of its year-old relaxed media-ownership rules.

Thursday's ruling was a setback for major media companies that want to buy more radio or television stations in individual cities because it makes it unlikely that new, looser ownership rules could go into effect before this fall's presidential election.

"They need to go back and prove that they can serve the public interest," said Hannah Sassaman, program director at Prometheus. It favors local low-power radio stations and was a lead group in challenging the government over the new rules.

Sassaman and other activists were elated by the court's decision: They have said that media concentation wipes out the airing of differing opinions and allows TV, radio and newspaper operators to neglect local communities.

But the court did recognize the FCC's right to lift the three-decade ban on one company owning newspapers and broadcast operations in one market. But it questioned the agency's methodology in setting ownership limits.

An FCC spokeswoman said yesterday that the FCC needed time to digest the 218-page opinion and had a lot of decisions to make.

Tribune Co., a Chicago company that owns newspapers and TV stations, said it was disappointed by the delay in the establishment of clear rules.

Implementation of the new FCC rules, blocked by the same federal appeals court in Philadelphia last September, would make possible a dramatic reshaping of the media landscape.

In the largest cities, including Philadelphia, one company could own three television stations, eight radio stations, a major daily newspaper, the dominant cable television operator, and the major Internet provider, said Mark Cooper, director of research at the Consumer Federation of America.

Activists would like to "actually tighten the rules" on how many properties one company may own, said Beth A. McConnell, director of the Pennsylvania Public Interest Research Group in Philadelphia. "We would prefer that there is more diverse ownership within our media system."

Americans have another chance to tell regulators what they expect from the owners of radio and TV stations, activists said. "We want to see a comprehensive slate of hearings across the United States," said Josh Silver, managing director of Free Press, a Northampton, Mass., media-policy organization.

It's not clear what the FCC will do. It can rewrite the rules, go back to the panel of judges, or try to appeal to the Supreme Court.

Normally, the FCC could have requested a review of the case by all 22 of the appeals court's members. That is not possible in this case because a majority of the judges recused themselves from hearing it, said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, lead counsel for the citizens groups. Presumably, he said, the recused members own stock in some of the media companies that could be affected.

Contact staff writer Harold Brubaker at 215-854-4651 or hbrubaker@phillynews.com.

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