PORTLAND (AP) – The Federal Communications Commission opened a seven-hour hearing Thursday to obtain public input on how broadcasters are fulfilling their public service responsibilities at a time when most local media has come under out-of-state ownership.

The hearing at Portland High School provided members of the public with a rare opportunity to offer feedback to the agency that regulates the broadcast industry.

Four of the five commissioners attended the hearing on localism, with two expressing concerns in prepared opening remarks about a loss of public interest protections arising from such changes as loosened ownership restrictions and a “rubber-stamp” license renewal process.

The selection of Portland as one of six cities to have a hearing before the full commission was sought by Sen. Olympia Snowe, a member of the Senate Commerce Commission that has oversight over broadcasting issues.

In remarks delivered by an aide, Snowe worried that diverse voices on local airwaves may be curtailed because of consolidation but maintained that national corporate ownership and local broadcast content need not be mutually exclusive.

“This is evidenced not in the least by the exemplary local news coverage that Mainers have grown accustomed to and continue to enjoy,” she said.

Former Common Cause President Chellie Pingree lamented a decline in local news coverage by radio stations in Maine’s midcoast as many came under national ownership.

She recalled how her state Senate district was covered more than a decade ago by about six radio stations and that most community meetings drew at least two reporters “with tape recorders and microphones collecting information for the next morning’s news broadcast.”

Today, she said, most local stations air no local public affairs broadcasting and those that do offer only a minimal amount.

Suzanne Goucher, president of the Maine Association of Broadcasters, defended the commitment of the state’s radio and TV stations to service to local communities.

In a statement passed out at the start of the hearing, she said broadcasters’ recognition of their responsibilities to the public was displayed by the extensive coverage they aired of this year’s Patriot’s Day storm, last year’s floods and the ice storm of 1998.

The hearing, scheduled to last for seven hours, included two panel discussions on localism, each followed by a session devoted to two-minute statements from members of the public.

Panel members ranged from broadcast and newspaper industry representatives to university professors.

Commissioners Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps were critical of their agency’s rules changes that they said fostered concentration of media ownership and a wilting away of the obligation of broadcasters to serve their local communities.

“Frankly, the FCC has failed to protect the interests of the American people,” Adelstein said.

Prior to Thursday’s hearing, Copps praised Maine’s efforts to promote rural broadband expansion during a meeting with Gov. John Baldacci in Augusta.

Legislation submitted by Baldacci created the ConnectME Authority, whose mission is to increase access to broadband and wireless services, especially in rural communities. Rules governing the operation of the authority became effective this month.

During Thursday’s meeting, Copps said Maine is one of a few states that have decided to address the broadband access issue themselves, said Baldacci’s legal counsel Michael Mahoney, who attended the meeting.

Baldacci has announced a goal of 90 percent of Maine to have broadband access by 2010.

Copps also addressed the ConnectME authority before his meeting with Baldacci.

AP-ES-06-28-07 1812EDT

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