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Thursday, January 7, 2010

Good Bye to Senator Dorgan and, I Hope, to the "Tale of the Minot Train Wreck"
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North Dakota Senator Byron Dorgan has announced that he will not seek re-election to in 2010. To be candid, I will not be one of those sorry to see him retire.

The Associated Press identifies Senator Dorgan as a "moderate." I have no idea the basis for that assessment but, to the contrary, and in my experience, he was one of the most reactionary members of the Senate on media issues. Like a few of the FCC Commissioners past and present, Byron Dorgan seems unable or unwilling to come to terms with the revolution that has occurred in the media markets as a result of digital technology.

While most of us worry about how serious media enterprises will survive in an age when audiences are badly fragmented, serious journalistic efforts cannot find paying customers, and high quality entertainment programming has effectively become a loss leader for anyone still investing in it, Senator Dorgan spent his time in the Senate trying to obstruct any and every attempt to modernize the FCC's outdated broadcast ownership rules. Indeed, in his efforts to keep the FCC's media rules mired in the 1970s, Senator Dorgan was not above empty rhetorical flourishes, and one in particular stands out in my memory.

Most notably at one Senate hearing, Senator Dorgan related the story of a train wreck that occurred near Minot, North Dakota, and the supposed failure of the local radio station (which was owned by Clear Channel, a national radio concern) to respond to calls from local public safety authorities. In Byron Dorgan's version of the event, Clear Channel didn't really care about Minot and its residents, and the station was not staffed at the time of the incident but was instead broadcasting using "voice tracking" (essentially, canned programming recorded elsewhere or at another time).

If one spends just a few minutes to get to the underlying facts, though, one would find that the incident didn't quite happen that way. In fact, as the then-CEO of Clear Channel explained in a letter to Senator Dorgan, the station did have full-time staff on duty at the time of the incident, but the local police were unable to get through to the station because they used an outdated emergency phone number rather than the automated emergency response system (which had been in place for several years). As a result, the police calls were forwarded to the station's switchboard, which was then, of course, being flooded by calls from residents reporting the accident or seeking information.

As for their supposed indifference to the community, other station personnel began reporting for work on their own accord as they learned of the wreck. In an effort to ascertain the extent of the accident and to discuss an appropriate emergency message for residents, station personnel made their own efforts to contact local public safety officials. Unfortunately, police and fire phone lines also were flooded with calls from residents, so the station was not able to get through. Finally, and after the fact, a station engineer discovered that the Minot police had changed the emergency broadcast frequency they used without notifying the station. Thus, if anything, the tale of the Minot train wreck is a tale of incompetent local public safety officials, not one of the dangers of so-called "Big Media."

But the Minot train wreck made a good story and, in Washington politics, that's all that matters sometimes. Let's hope we've heard the last of it now that Senator Dorgan has elected to retire.

posted by W. Kenneth Ferree @ 9:34 AM | Capitol Hill , Communications , Mass Media , Media Regulation

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