Federal Communications Commissioner Michael Copps is on a roll. Dismissed as recently as a few months ago as a solitary, impotent voice in the wilderness crying out against an unstoppable juggernaut of media ownership deregulation, the liberal Democrat has gained fresh traction for his cause by unilaterally calling high-profile regional public hearings on the issue. Those include a March 7 event to be held at the University of Washington.

Later this spring, the FCC will consider relaxing or eliminating rules that limit the number of radio and television stations one company can own in a single market, and that bar one company from owning more than one television network, or from owning a newspaper and television station in the same market, or from owning stations that reach more than 35 percent of television households nationally.

It is the most important regulatory debate in the country today--influencing how Americans get their information, what they watch on television or hear on the radio, and who controls the airwaves and newspapers--yet most of the public doesn't have a clue it's going on, Copps said in a February 19 telephone interview with The Stranger.

"Most people don't understand that they own the airwaves and have a direct stake in this," Copps said. "We have an obligation to reach out and tell people what they need to know." Under pressure from Copps, FCC Chairman Michael Powell, a Republican free-market purist who favors scrapping the rules, had previously agreed to only a single hearing on February 27 in Richmond, Virginia.

But Copps has gone on to call further hearings, angering Powell. After Copps characterized the Seattle event and a later session in North Carolina as "official" hearings, Powell dismissed the new hearings as an anachronistic "19th-century whistle-stop tour," and then downgraded them to unofficial "field hearings." Asked about Powell's criticism, Copps responds that if efforts at public outreach constitute a whistle-stop tour, then "so be it--that's a whistle-stop tour." He also dismisses Powell's downgrade as an exercise in meaningless semantics, adding that quibbling over terminology is "silly."

What is important is the hearing itself, Copps says, since it will provide a crucial opportunity to take testimony and raise public awareness. It will include several "balanced panels" and should elicit specific, useful information that will influence the decision-making process. "No one is going into these with their mindsets preordained," he says.

Media concentration "goes to the very nature of our democratic dialogue and the preservation of the marketplace of ideas," Copps asserts. "The decisions we make now will deal with the whole landscape of media for years and years to come."

More Beltway insider than populist crusader, Copps has emerged over the last year as a politically savvy operator. In so doing, he has positioned himself as a major thorn in the side of Powell on the five-member commission, which is composed of three Republicans and two Democrats. Last week, in a defeat rare for a sitting FCC chair, Copps and fellow Democrat Jonathan Adelstein backed a proposal by Republican commissioner Kevin Martin that derailed Powell's plan to eliminate existing telecommunications rules requiring that big regional phone companies allow upstart providers to use their lines. As a result, Powell and Martin are said to barely be on speaking terms.

That split may potentially carry over to the media concentration issue as well. Adelstein will join Copps at the Seattle hearing; significantly, an aide says Martin is considering coming as well, but has not yet decided. Powell and the other Republican commissioner, Kathleen Abernathy, have made it clear that they will not attend.

Powell favors eliminating the media ownership limits because he believes that the rise of new media forms like cable television and the Internet ensures that a diversity of media voices will be preserved, making the old rules obsolete.

Copps disagrees. "When cable came along, people said it would be an independent voice," he says. "Now when you look at the top 50 cable channels, 90 percent are owned by television network owners." Similarly, he points out, most of the top 20 websites are owned by traditional media companies.

Copps believes that all of the FCC rules are "connected," but concedes that it's "entirely possible" that some of them may be more likely to be eliminated than others. According to published reports, the cross-ownership rule (which bars ownership of a newspaper and television station in the same market) is almost certain to be relaxed, since Martin has joined Powell in questioning it, and Abernathy, the other FCC Republican, will almost certainly vote with them. That could conceivably have a major impact on Seattle's brewing daily-newspaper war, since the Hearst Corporation, the owner of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, has expressed interest in acquiring a Seattle television station to bolster their paper's competitive position relative to the larger Seattle Times.

What will happen with the other rules, though, remains an open question; perhaps the strongest argument in Copps' favor involves what has happened to radio since that industry was essentially deregulated in 1996. The number of radio owners has fallen 34 percent since then, Copps says, and the medium has become "a lot more homogenized and full of canned entertainment from national sources." Even some powerful Republican legislators, like maverick Senator John McCain, have recently expressed concern about radio consolidation.

That doesn't surprise Copps, who says the media concentration debate "is not a Republican or Democratic issue--or liberal versus conservative." The issue brings together media-diversity advocates on the left with defenders of public decency on the right, he says.

The March 7 Seattle hearing will be held at the UW's HUB Auditorium at 9:00 a.m., according to Sharon Nelson, director of the Schidler Center for Law, Commerce & Technology, which is sponsoring the session. A coalition of local media groups, including Reclaim the Media and the Recording Academy, is planning a series of events to coincide with the session.

sandeep@thestranger.com