The Scarcity Doctrine

Friday, April 16, 2004, at 12:12PM

By Eric Richardson

(This post is part of a series on FCC regulation of indecency. To see the whole series, click on the FCC Category.)

The FCC came into being because the early days of broadcast were unregulated, leading to a crowded and chaotic radio spectrum. In 1927 the Federal Radio Commission was created to issue licenses, regulate spectrum, and generally just keep the chaos from making radio unusable. The recipients of these licenses were then given certain requirements about what they could and could not broadcast.

These regulations were put into place with the justification that the broadcast spectrum is a public good and therefore the FRC (and then the FCC) must regulate it with the interests of the listening public, not the broadcasters. Licenses were granted to certain broadcasters in certain markets depending on market conditions and the type of programming the broadcaster wanted to offer. This second part is where the first ammendment comes in -- it's content based regulation of speech. If you say you're going to do one thing and the FCC grants you a license based on the fact that the genre you wish to provide is something underserved, they can stop you if you go and try to change your station into something else a little bit later. These days scarcity doesn't get the play that it once did, but it's still around. The court has said scarcity is less of an issue these days, but they haven't gotten rid of it for broadcast.