JUNEAU, ALASKA - An Australian couple with roots in Alaska has bought more than two dozen radio stations in three states, marking the first time federal regulators have allowed full foreign ownership of U.S. radio stations.
The Federal Communications Commission recently approved a request by Richard and Sharon Burns through their company Frontier Media to increase their interest in 29 radio stations in Alaska, Texas and Arkansas from 20 percent to 100 percent.
The agency long took what some viewed as a hard line in limiting foreign ownership under a 1930s law that harkened to war-time propaganda fears. But in 2013, it acknowledged a willingness to ease up after broadcasters complained the rules were too restrictive of outside investment.
The Burnses are citizens of Australia but have lived and worked in the U.S. since 2006, on special visas offered for Australians.
A family who owned six of the Alaska stations provided the opportunity that brought the couple to the U.S. The family wanted someone with international experience to operate the stations and help move the company forward, Richard Burns said. The stations in the Lower 48 were purchased later.
The Burnses' request to acquire full ownership was unopposed. The acquisition includes AM and FM stations and relay stations known as translators that help provide reception.
Richard Burns said he and his wife consider Alaska home and are pursuing U.S. citizenship.
"Our life is here in Juneau, Alaska, every single day," said Burns, who serves on the board of the Juneau Chamber of Commerce and in 2010 was named its citizen of the year.
Sharon Burns co-hosts a morning show on a Juneau country station the couple owns, and does on-air work for two of their other stations in southeast Alaska and one in Texas, her husband said. Richard Burn is the stations' CEO and a host on their Juneau classic hits station.
The federal law restricting foreign ownership dates to the 1930s and initially was seen as a way to thwart the airing of foreign propaganda during wartime, according to the FCC. It restricts to 25 percent foreign ownership or voting interests in a company that holds a broadcast license when the commission finds that limit is in the public interest.
In 2013, in response to broadcasters, interest groups and others who considered the commission's application of the law too rigid, the FCC clarified it has the authority to review on a case-by-case basis requests exceeding that threshold, and it is open to doing so.
The commission last year adopted rules for publicly traded companies following a case involving Pandora Media and questions about its level of foreign ownership as it pursued acquisition of a South Dakota radio station. Then-FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said the case underscored the need for more clarity for broadcasters and investors in the review process.
It's unclear how many other foreign citizens have a stake in U.S. radio stations. The FCC said it does not keep a comprehensive accounting because stations generally don't have to disclose smaller or nonvoting interest holders.
Lisa Scanlan, deputy chief of the FCC's audio division, said that as part of its public interest analysis, the commission consults with executive branch agencies that do independent reviews on issues including trade and foreign policy, national security and law enforcement.
Jessica Gonzalez is deputy director and senior counsel for the group Free Press, which has concerns about media consolidation. She said she's not opposed to the Burnses' case. But she said the larger the company, the more skeptical she becomes.
"I'm not fond at all of the idea of giant foreign companies or giant domestic companies buying up a bunch of radio stations," she said. "It's problematic."
She said an owner's nationality doesn't make a difference to her. "It's just a matter of whether or not they are actually going to serve their community," she said.
Richard Burns agreed. He said it's critical for radio station owners to be invested in the communities they serve.
He cited his wife, who does her show from Texas when she's there. Around Christmas last year, Sharon Burns delivered cookies to and spent time with first responders.
"If you're a good radio operator, I don't think it matters if you're foreign or not, as long as you engage in the community and you understand it," he said.