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  • Writer's pictureD. Maurice Kreis

Utility Regulation Gone Awry: A Crash Course

It always drives me crazy when journalists covering topics related to energy or public utilities proclaim in their first sentence or two that they are covering a boring topic but you should not tune out anyway.

But, I kinda sorta did the same thing with the latest edition of my column. In this instance it was justified because I was taking up a topic that everyone but me considers really dry: administrative law.

Teaching administrative law was really fun, during my brief sojourn in academia while on the payroll of Vermont Law School. But I'm someone whose imagination was fired, during high school, about the ability of citizens and consumers to shake their fists at the man via administrative law processes.

My teenage rebellion was listening to classical music. And one day I read in the Times that the New York area's only all-classical station -- WNCN (frequency 104.3 mHz) -- would be converting to rock 'n' roll that evening. Figuring it would be both melancholy and interesting, I resolved to tune in.

Interesting it was; melancholy it wasn't.

At midnight, the announcer (Bill Watson -- a great but weird guy whom I would meet during grad school a few years later) announced that WNCN would not, in fact, be switching formats that evening. A feisty citizens' group called the WNCN Listeners' Guild had obtained an injunction.

Keep in mind that this was the mid 1970s, back when broadcasting was still regulated by the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC had to bless such format changes -- which the agency had actually done, whereupon the Listeners' Guild took their case to a federal appeals court. Thus the injunction.

Eventually the company that owned WNCN sold the station to GAF, which kept the classical music format for several more years. Broadcasting was deregulated during the Reagan Administration -- over my vociferous objection I might add (I was quoted on the subject in TV Guide, then the biggest-circulation magazine in the U.S.) That gives me one mighty I-told-you-so because broadcasting deregulation is what paved the way for the right-wing media to dominate the airwaves.

In any event, this whole WNCN thing really fired my imagination and I've been keen on regulation (and administrative law) ever since. Just ask me about Chevron deference -- or INS v. Chadha -- and I can go for hours.

Or you can just read my column (which is about neither Chevron nor Chadha).

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