The Federal Communications Commission launched a podcast yesterday, playfully named after George Carlin’s famously explicit standup routine. The show, More Than Seven Dirty Words, will interview people inside and outside the FCC about what the commission does and how it impacts the real world.
But the podcast’s introduction — and the FCC’s announcement about it — reveals something odd and frustrating that speaks to the current state of the commission: the FCC thinks no one cares about what it does. The podcast’s host, Evan Swarztrauber, previously of the libertarian think tank TechFreedom, opens with an explanation for people who “haven’t had the pleasure of taking a telecom law class” and closes with the tongue-in-cheek promise of attempting to “achieve the impossible: make telecom policy interesting.”
But here’s the thing: telecom policy is really, really interesting. Just ask the millions of people who figured out the agency’s byzantine commenting system in order to leave their thoughts on the 2017 proceeding to end net neutrality. Or the millions who commented on the 2014 proceeding, too.
Telecom policy can be made immensely dull — particularly when you refer to it as “telecom policy” — but when you put it in terms that people understand, like “blocking websites,” “improving Wi-Fi,” and “deploying faster internet,” it turns into something that many people have passionate opinions on. The FCC regulates critical and fascinating technology that most Americans interact with nearly every single day, often quite extensively. It’s not hard to get people interested.
In the podcast’s introductory episode, FCC chairman Ajit Pai says he thinks many people learned of the commission “from certain controversies they see in the news” and that the show will be a way of “getting the message out” about what the agency really does. He and Swarztrauber see the podcast as a way to highlight the lower-profile work being done inside the commission.
They’re not wrong: most of the commission’s work is dealing with dry, agreeable technical issues like how powerful emissions can be from a radio tower. The first episode fully steers clear of politics and focuses on the work of a career FCC attorney who grew up in Puerto Rico and went there after Hurricane Maria to help on behalf of the commission. It’s an important subject, but the show isn’t designed to engage with listeners on the actual issues the agency faces in dealing with a catastrophe, or likely anything else.
That’s not going to accomplish the podcast’s stated goal. And, realistically, the commission probably doesn’t want the attention anyway since people might not like it if they found out what the agency has been doing: removing broadband subsidies for low-income households, hiding information on a program that pays for computer equipment in schools, and generally giving internet providers — some of the most despised companies in the country — carte blanche to treat websites, apps, and internet traffic as they please.
People have strong opinions on these things. But again and again, Ajit Pai’s commission doesn’t take their side and reacts with offense when hearing their concerns. The FCC and its chairman were even clear about the fact that they wouldn’t really be taking people’s opinions into account during the proceeding to destroy net neutrality, saying they would be valuing comment “quality” over “quantity,” which seemed to mean that anything shy of a legal brief would be ignored.
If the FCC wants to get people engaged and interested in what it’s doing, it really just needs to ask. But instead, the commission launched a podcast that begs for people to listen, while refusing to listen to anyone else.