FCC Goes Slower on Radio Mergers

Prior to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, federal law limited broadcasters to ownership of only four radio stations in any one market, and a maximum of 40 nationwide. The act loosened regulations to allow ownership of as many as eight stations in a single market, and hundreds nationally.

Although one intended purpose of the act was "to encourage competition," a wave of mergers and acquisitions followed its passage. One small broadcaster after another caved in to buyout offers, and the resulting larger companies were purchased in turn by even bigger ones.

The Federal Communications Commission presided over the orgy of consolidation for the first two and a half years, quickly approving and processing most merger applications. The rubber-stamping came to a halt last August, after commissioners began to realize that radio programming in many communities would be dominated by one or two big players. The FCC has slowed its approval rate to examine more closely the implications of approval---raising the ire of brokers, lawyers, and executives eager to see the mergers completed. "It's very difficult to keep clients calm, because there's money at stake," attorney Gregg Skall told the Wall Street Journal. Skall's firm, Pepper & Corazzini, is involved in the sale of a group of seven radio stations in Blacksburg, Virginia.

The FCC is now looking at the deals "with a magnifying glass," said broker Michael Bergner, noting that the backlog is "making a lot of people angry." Mergers that would allow one company to control half of all the radio ad revenue in any market, or situations in which only two companies would control 70% or more of a market, are getting special attention at the FCC---and at the Justice Department, which has a mandate to enforce antitrust regulations.

The two bureaucracies are plowing some of the same territory, complain some Republican legislators. Some multi-station purchases must be approved by both agencies, further lengthening the process. The FCC has also decided to re-examine its liberalized rules regarding the ownership of both radio and television stations in the same market. The commission's deputy chief of the Mass Media Bureau, Robert Ratcliffe, said the FCC would persist in taking "a hard look" at waivers that give broadcasters the rights to both TV and radio in the same communities. "It's another example of the abusive way in which mergers are being handled by the FCC," charged Representative Billy Tauzin (R-LA), chairman of the House Telecommunications Subcommittee. So far, no applications have been rejected.

For large-scale broadcasters, the current pace feels like forever compared to that of 18 months ago. Among the deals awaiting approval: a 29-station transfer involving Triathlon Broadcasting Co. and Capstar Radio Broadcasting, and a 234-station deal between Clear Channel Communications Inc. and Jacor Communications.