BOB GARFIELD: The vote was not necessarily the last word on the matter. Republican Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska has introduced a bill which would block some of the rule changes, and the measure is being backed by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle including Republican Senator Conrad Burns of Montana who joins me now. Senator, welcome to OTM!
CONRAD BURNS: Thank you very much! Nice to be here!
BOB GARFIELD: On Monday of course the FCC voted to raise the cap on network ownership, allowing one company to reach 45 percent of the national audience. Senator Stevens' measure which you are supporting would effectively roll that limit back to 35 percent -- where it was before the vote. If the Congress is going to be in the re-regulation business, why have regulatory agencies to begin with?
CONRAD BURNS: Well, I think you know what we're concerned with up here is concentration and market power. I don't think anybody has hit those caps -- maybe one of two of 'em have run up against this 35 percent cap. That doesn't concern me as much as the ability to concentrate a lot of muscle power in the market where it takes advertising dollars and, and money to run these networks and radio stations and television stations, and they can muscle a little man out of the market pretty easily and take over all of it.
BOB GARFIELD:Understood. But what about the precedent of second-guessing the regulatory agencies that Congress has mandated to make this kind of evaluation?
CONRAD BURNS: Well they made the evaluation. That didn't say they had to change the rules. There's nothing in the law that says that they must change it one way or the other! They can accept the status quo! And I happen to believe that the status quo they have right now is pretty much in line with where the country wants to be.
BOB GARFIELD: Senator McCain, the chairman of the Commerce Committee, does not support this bill. Can he keep it bottled up in the committee?
CONRAD BURNS:I don't think so. I think there's strong bipartisan support of this. But I think as chairman of the committee he's been very good about accepting that this is an issue that has got critical mass and is an emotional issue across the country.
BOB GARFIELD:Well should this particular measure fail, there's another tactic that some of your colleagues are embracing -- a Newt Gingrich innovation which essentially expresses the Congress's displeasure with the regulatory change and manages to negate it. But let's just say that or Senator Stevens' bill emerges from the Senate. Would either one of them have a snowball's chance in the House where deregulatory-minded Republicans so dominate?
CONRAD BURNS: Well, sure. It may face stiff questions in the House of Representatives but you ought to also understand that the political landscape right now is that the majority of people in this country do not want those caps lifted! Look at my state in particular. We've only got a 50 percent hookup in, in cable. Now we got a heavy concentration in satellite because we're rural and have a lot of dirt between light bulbs! And you're not going to wire those people. And they're getting no local to local news or a station with regard to their dish. And if we concentrate that power, we lose leverage in the market. If a large conglomerate comes in and owns us all, we just lose. We, we'll never have the prospect of ever receiving local to local via satellite if that happens.
BOB GARFIELD:So that's your dog in this fight. As you know, the FCC received hundreds of thousands of comments in the weeks leading up to the vote, a lot of them from the NRA. But many others were from groups very unlike the National Rifle Association -- groups like Common Cause and Moveon.org. -- groups with which you in your career haven't exactly seen eye to eye terribly much in the past. I'm curious what it's like for you to be in common cause with Common Cause.
CONRAD BURNS: Well, [LAUGHS] politics makes strange bedfellows every now and again. If you look into the privacy situation or in the spamming situation, you'll find that some of those groups are very supportive of what we're trying to do.
BOB GARFIELD:Finally, this whole controversy was set in motion by the Telecommunications Act of 1996 which opened the door for this kind of consolidation. Are you and your colleagues, especially your conservative colleagues, kicking yourselves about now -- kind of wish you'd heeded the chorus of cautionary voices back in the mid-'90s?
CONRAD BURNS: I think so, and, and we've talked about that, and we remember the discussion whenever we talked about putting caps in the law. But we felt like and the commission felt like that give 'em some flexibility to do the biennial study and then we'll at least consult with Congress and the feelings of the political winds before they did anything! This, they did not do. And I think that's what kind of rankled some of the members of Congress, and I know it rankled some of the consumer groups.
BOB GARFIELD: Senator Burns, thank you very much!
CONRAD BURNS: Thank you!
BOB GARFIELD:Senator Conrad Burns represents the State of Montana in the U.S. Senate. He is a co-sponsor of legislation that would block part of the FCC's recent relaxation of media ownership guidelines.
JONATHAN ADELSTEIN: I'm disappointed that a majority of my colleagues could not be persuaded to take a more reasoned, conservative, case by case approach. But this is far from over. Congress may prove more responsive to the citizens who passionately plead for the independence of the diversity of their media. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, this is not the end or even the beginning of the end, but just the end of the beginning. Thank you. [APPLAUSE]
MAN: Thank you, Commissioner Adelstein. [MUSIC]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Up next, covering weapons of mass destruction, or the lack thereof. Also, Iraq's mystery blogger unveiled.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media from NPR.