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Congress should protect the public airwaves from ZoneCasting

In the midst of our digital media revolution, where screens of all sizes dominate and Americans are consuming content from an exploding variety of websites, streaming platforms, apps and podcasts, the time-tested technology of terrestrial radio amazingly continues to thrive. Indeed, according to the PEW Research Center, 89 percent of Americans will listen to an AM or FM station in a given week.

Radio’s continued success is a testament to the fact that nothing can supplant the very personal connection Americans have with their local radio stations. Radio doesn’t demand an expensive device or password to access a Wi-Fi signal; a couple of AA batteries and a ten dollar transistor can connect anyone to all of the latest news, weather, sports, entertainment, and important community information they have come to depend upon.

Radio is also uniquely democratic, as the airwaves that carry its signals belong to the public, and more than any other medium radio engenders a unique listening community among those tuned to a station’s personalities, programming and advertising content. But sadly, with little fanfare, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is entertaining a proposal involving a technology called ZoneCasting that could do insurmountable harm to our nation’s radio industry.

At issue is ZoneCasting technology that boosts a separate signal apart from a station’s primary content to a geotargeted area within its frequency range. The intended result is for some listeners to hear customized advertisements depending upon their location. Purportedly the idea is to give advertisers a more cost-effective option to reach potential customers, but the larger question remains: Is broadcast radio really the place to experiment with unproven technology to further segment a consumer economy that is already growing increasingly segmented?

Thankfully, some in Congress are paying attention, and many within government and industry are adamantly opposing ZoneCasting for its potential to do immense damage to American radio in exchange for questionable benefits. Last month, Republican and Democratic members of Congress, Reps. Yvette Clark (D-N.Y.), Rep. Darren Soto (D-Fla.), and Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.) sent two separate letters to FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel expressing a unified concern that segmenting radio signals will have a “negative impact” on their respective communities, locally-owned businesses, and their constituents’ access to timely news regarding emergencies and disasters.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has made it clear that ZoneCasting will almost certainly interfere with the Emergency Alert System (EAS), the agency’s only tool to connect to every part of the country during times of crisis. The EAS system has proven vital to consumers in countless public safety crises, including Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Harvey, when EAS broadcasts were the only mechanisms many listeners had to remain informed about the latest disaster news and emergency response rescue operations in their areas. FEMA warns that if the FCC implements ZoneCasting, EAS messages may never reach their intended audiences because the technology “would have the capacity to interrupt or even wholly-displace official emergency messages, representing a disservice to the public and a potential safety issue.”
FEMA’s concerns underscore the broad consensus that the technology to achieve a seamless geotargeted FM signal has yet to be developed. The reality is that if ZoneCasting moves forward with current technology, both consumers and broadcasters will suffer immensely.

The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and National Public Radio (NPR) both filed comments with the FCC opposing ZoneCasting, citing a study they commissioned which found widespread consumer dissatisfaction with signal switching. Noting that a whopping 91percent of listeners will simply change stations when hitting a transition point between signals, they conclude, “ZoneCasting technology will result in widespread and annoying interference that will drive listeners away from terrestrial radio.”

Further damage to the radio industry will result when larger stations with financial resources procure the extremely expensive equipment ZoneCasting requires. The mega stations can then sell many more ads at a rate that smaller stations won’t be able to match, an unfair advantage above and beyond mere signal strength that will inevitably result in many stations signing off the air for good. Since 2004 more than 2,000 local newspapers have closed due to a collapse in advertising revenue, resulting in what some have called “news deserts” in communities where newspapers closed up shop. It would be beyond tragic if the same fate befell local radio.

ZoneCasting is further entirely unnecessary, as advertisers today have never had more access to consumer and demographic data to target their ads, whether through digital media or traditional broadcast channels. There is absolutely no justification to carve up the public airwaves for an unproven technology that would undermine public safety, sacrifice consumer choice, and jeopardize an entire industry’s viability.

Despite this issue’s lack of notoriety, much is at stake. While pointed letters to the FCC are a good start, Congress must now take action with its oversight authority to demand answers concerning ZoneCasting’s projected impact on the broadcasting industry and our democratic ideals. Congress must make sure we protect the public airwaves for the public.

Gerard Scimeca is an attorney and serves as chairman and co-founder of CASE, Consumer Action for a Strong Economy, a free-market oriented consumer advocacy organization.

Tags FCC radio station advertising ZoneCasting

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