Who really owns the airwaves? One guy says: Not you!

Erwin G. Krasnow

Erwin G. Krasnow

There was a scary report issued this week by Erwin Krasnow, who is a former NAB General Counsel (according to Broadcasting & Cable’s John Eggerton) and/or former FCC General Counsel (according to AllAccess.com). In an opinion piece (PDF) released by the DC-based The Media Institute, Krasnow calls on the FCC to “(r)enounce the discredited concept of public ownership of the airwaves”.

(Important Aside: By an odd coincidence, I’ve been reading one of Krasnow’s books off and on for a few months. Profitably Buying and Selling Broadcast Stations seems to be an excellent guide for dealing with contracts and other necessary details as you’re working out a deal on a station. It’s also as dry as burnt toast. I’d love to have Krasnow in my corner should I ever negotiate a purchase. And I believe that my use of his promotional photo from his page on his firm’s site constitutes Fair Use. Please don’t hurt me, oh mighty lawyers!)

In particular, the paper seems to want to disprove FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, who said that “using the public airwaves is a privilege — a lucrative one and I fear that the FCC has not done enough to stand up for the public interest.” Quoting Ayn Rand and Dean Rusk, Krasnow builds an excellent prima facie case that claiming public ownership, and thereby inviting public regulation, is as absurd as requiring a license to use sunlight to grow crops.

But the paper gives little attention to the real problem: You can’t just stick an antenna on your roof and start broadcasting. It’s true that new technologies (such as blogs) give us alternatives, but that’s not the point. No other communication medium is as ubiquitous as over-the-air TV and radio. The number of simultaneous channels in any given location really is finite. Each broadcast station effectively prevents any number of possible competing stations from being heard by the thousands or millions of receivers within range. That’s why the public deserves a seat at the table as we discuss what responsibilities are included in each broadcast license.