Radio, TV signals vital to country's safety.

The FCC's four commissioners met for nearly three hours today (Sept. 15) in Atlanta to hear testimony from four broadcasters and various representatives of other parts of the country's communications industry and infrastructure.

The most important message sent by broadcasters to the commissioners was that the ability to receive analog, over-the-air radio and TV signals is vital to this country's safety.

For radio, that means the ability to keep a signal on the air and beam the news and information people need in order to survive. At times, as witnesses made clear, it can come down to having access to fuel for a generator.

Testimonies regarding TV dealt with the return of analog spectrum in a transition to digital-only, over-the-air transmission. Hearst-Argyle Television news VP Fred Young made the statement: "I'm concerned about those who advocate premature return of analog TV spectrum. It's vital that everyone is capable of receiving [the information they need during a crisis]. It's critical to everyone that they have access [to the information, no matter what type of receiver they own]."

The testimony from the other broadcasters, especially those representing radio, proved the point in terms of maintaining a working, over-the-air link to the local community.

Dick Lewis, Clear Channel's regional VP for Louisiana and Southern Mississippi emphasized his company's commitment to the local communities it serves. In acknowledgement of CC's enormous holdings, he pointed out that this "collection of assets" allowed the broadcaster to bring -- or buy -- all the vital equipment and supplies necessary to keep a broadcast operation running.

"We had two important things to do," Lewis said, "and number one was mission critical, be the lifeline." That lifeline was made easier to maintain, in part, because Clear Channel Outdoor's transportation crew are licensed to move hazardous materials around the country. In this emergency, that meant moving fuel for generators into Baton Rouge and other areas.

Belo Corp. VP David Duitch said his company's WWL-TV remained on the air before, during and after the hurricane because it had facilities designed to withstand a category 5 hurricane. Those advanced preparations gave the WWL staff the ability to stay on the air and to maintain contact with the New Orleans community, at a time when WWL radio was temporarily off the air.

Twenty-four-year WWL radio veteran Diane Newman told the FCC's Atlanta gathering how important local broadcasters were in reaching and touching their community: "We were the stage," Newman said, "The voice of the voiceless, the voice of the authorities trying to reach [listeners]" with vital safety information.

That work continues, Newman said, and it continues only because of the combined efforts of rival broadcasters to achieve one common goal: Inform the local population. "I'm still in it," she said, trying to convey the enormity of the work that remains to repair and restore New Orleans. "If you get anything, understand that the story is huge, the humanity is heart-wrenching."

In other FCC news, chairman Kevin Martin has proposed the creation of a new Public Safety/Homeland Security Bureau to coordinate public safety, national security, and disaster management activities within the FCC.

Working with Congress to complete a restructuring already underway at the commission, the FCC would add a new bureau to develop policies and rules to promote effective and reliable communications for public safety, national security, and disaster management.

Also discussed in today's meeting was Martin's proposal to provide approximately $211 million in Universal Service Fund support to consumers, schools, libraries, healthcare providers, and telecommunications carriers affected by Hurricane Katrina through four FCC programs: the Low Income program, the Rural Health Care program, the E-rate program and the High Cost program.

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