Tom Wheeler has only been Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission for two months, but on Thursday night in Oakland he made a statement that his tenure might not be business as usual.
“My new job is to learn by listening,” said Wheeler, addressing a packed Nile Hall at Preservation Park in Oakland.
It has been over five years since the FCC left Washington, D.C. in an official capacity to hear how its policies affect real people, said media justice organization Free Press, one of the organizers of the event.
Thursday evening, Oakland hosted a rare town hall meeting with Chairman Wheeler to discuss federal communications policies.
Titled Oakland Voices: A Town Hall on our Right to Communicate and sponsored by Voices for Internet Freedom, the event drew hundreds of community members, and featured panelists and speakers from a range of community organizations and media justice groups.
“There will be a time when we are outside, confronting power,” said Malkia Cyril, Executive Director of the Center for Media Justice. “Tonight we are here to share our stories so we can begin to see what can be done. It is easier to fight and yell and resist, even when it is hard, than having a vision of what needs to happen and working toward it.”
Dozens of speakers lined up to voice their concerns to Chairman Wheeler on a range of communications issues, including Lifeline program reform, prison phone rates, internet regulation, broadband internet access, and media ownership and diversity.
In 2006 there were 18 black owned and operated television stations in the United States. As of last month, there were none, according to Free Press analysis of FCC data. The organization attributes that decline to media consolidation.
“In 2006 we had a crisis. Today the situation is tragic,” Chancellar Williams with Free Press said. “Chairman Wheeler I know that you did not cause these problems. But you can fix them– and we’re willing to work with you to do so.”
The Federal Communications Commission is a federal regulatory agency that sets telecommunication policy in the country. Wheeler, like many of the previous chairmen before him, comes from the private sector, and worked for years with telecommunications networks. He spent most of the evening as a spectator, hearing from individuals and groups often critical of his commission and policies.
“This is a listening exercise for me,” Wheeler said.
Wheeler demonstrated his listening skills and impressed the crowd by listing off the names of the previous speakers and bringing up specific stories that stuck with him.
A potential cut to Lifeline, a federal program that subsidizes basic phone service for low-income Americans, was a particularly upsetting issue for Wheeler. Despite talk in Washington of cutting or reducing the program, Wheeler expressed his support and assured the numerous individuals who spoke on the issue that the FCC was on their side.
One mother, Karen Gonzalez, told Wheeler about her struggles with prison phones, estimating that she will pay over $20,000 in 16 years through surcharges and long distance charges to reach her son in prison.
“I’m never going to forget that story,” Wheeler said. “I’m carrying that with me.”
Other speakers tried to show how policy was directly affecting local communities in the Bay Area.
“Media companies like to suggest that consolidation will improve coverage. Our Bay Area story tells the opposite,” said Sara Steffens, Secretary Treasurer with the Newspaper Guild and a former reporter with the Contra Costa Times. “We have literally lost half our journalists and we haven’t hit rock bottom yet.”
Wheeler responded directly to Steffens.
“One of the first things we did is to do away with the proposed rule change that eased the cross-ownership restriction so that companies could merge more,” Wheeler said.
In the end, Wheeler could not provide answers or solutions to the numerous issues raised throughout the evening, but both the FCC chairman and the community groups were appreciative of the rare opportunity to exchange dialogue.
“I learned a lot,” Wheeler said.
Organizers of the event were pleased, but said the evening was just a starting point.
“Our telecommunications system is supposed to represent us,” Malkia Cyril said. “We hope that our regulatory agencies and our leaders are up to the task of partnering with us to save our democracy and our lives.”