Conservative radio talk show host Al Roney offered listeners a local perspective on WGY, an AM station in Latham, N.Y. That is, until the Clear Channel-owned station replaced Roney’s morning show with canned programming. In February, he was fired, and Glenn Beck’s nationally syndicated show – far less interested in life in Latham than Roney – took over his slot.
“I like the local focus that (Roney) brought to the radio,” Eric Sutton told the Albany Times Union, “and I really think we’re going to miss that. There’s nobody else talking about the local disgraces that are going on.”
Of course none of this is shocking news. Since Congress lifted the limits on local radio station ownership in 1996, mega corporations like Clear Channel have been swooping in to communities to buy stations, fire local staff and replace the local shows with computer-generated playlists and syndicated (mostly right-wing) talk show hosts broadcasting from miles – and even states – away.
But there could be a sliver of a silver lining: On May 25, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) kicked off its 2010 review of media ownership rules, which dictate how many radio and TV stations someone can own in one community. This quadrennial review is a unique opportunity for citizens to weigh in on the ways media consolidation has impacted their community. But it’s also a chance for Big Media to lobby the FCC for more big giveaways. In the past, the FCC has consistently tried to loosen media ownership rules to let the biggest media companies get even bigger.
Will the FCC finally take this opportunity to stand up for the public and create new rules that protect our airwaves and give us more diverse radio, or will it – once again – bow to industry’s wishes?
Here’s what we do know: In 1996, there were 10,257 commercial radio stations and 5,133 radio owners. Today, there are 11,202 commercial radio stations and 3,143 owners. That’s a 39 percent decrease in the number of owners since 1996.
What these numbers mean in practice is clear: a whole lot of harm to local communities.
Broken corporate promises
When big companies buy up commercial broadcasting stations across the country, they care about one thing: big profit. Local news, music and information is replaced with automated programming specifically designed to keep listeners tuned in for long (and getting longer) commercial breaks. (Watch this disturbing video of how Clear Channel uses “focus groups” to determine which songs their dee-jays are forced to play: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=crwQJQDfrzE)
It’s almost impossible for independent and local musicians to enter this carefully controlled media environment. In 2007, the FCC fined four of the nation’s largest radio station group owners – Clear Channel, CBS Radio, Citadel and Entercom – for participating in payola (the illegal practice of exchanging song airtime for payment or other inducements). Additionally, the companies voluntarily agreed to an “indie set-aside,” promising to collectively air 4,200 hours of local, regional and unsigned artists and independent labels.
But last July, the advocacy organization Future of Music Coalition produced a report called “Same Old Song,” which examined playlist data in New York State from 2005 to 2008. Despite noble corporate promises, there was no considerable difference in broadcasting practices. Local and independent music was still off the air.
If live DJs are gone and programming is canned, what happens if there’s a local emergency? The kind where residents need information from their radio stations about evacuation procedures and safety precautions? Well, what might happen is a corporate-made media disaster.
Remember Minot? In 2002, a train derailed in Minot, N.D., releasing noxious anhydrous ammonia into the air. When the federal Emergency Alert System tried to get in touch with radio stations in the town about the spill, the “unmanned” stations didn’t respond. New York University sociologist Eric Klinenberg recounted the radio fail in his 2007 book Fighting for Air: The Battle to Control America’s Media:
KCJB, and every other radio station in town, were not reporting any news or information about the anhydrous spill. Instead, all six of Minot’s name-brand stations – Z94, 97 Kicks, Mix 99.9, The Fox Classic Rock, 91 Country, and Cars Oldies Radio – continued playing a standard menu of canned music, served up by smooth-talking DJs…while the giant toxic cloud floated into town.
The threat of a legitimate disaster unfolding silently persists. Here’s Ars Technica writer Matthew Lasar worrying about San Francisco last month:
[W]e’re waiting for our next major earthquake. On that fateful day, our Internet won’t be worth much if our local [Internet Service Providers] go down. Our smart phones won’t help if carrier networks overload or their transmitter towers run out of back-up power. Ditto for cable TV, electricity-wise.
So chances are that when the Big One comes, we’ll drop our fancy mobiles, get in our cars, and fire up our AM radios. Here’s hoping that six months later we won’t be following debates about why we heard nothing but Rush Limbaugh and adult contemporary pop.
What’s the FCC to do?
With overall radio ownership down, consider these alarming statistics: Women own just six percent of all full-power commercial broadcast radio stations, even though they comprise 51 percent of the U.S. population. Racial or ethnic minorities own less than eight percent of all full-power commercial broadcast radio stations, though they account for about one-third of the U.S. population.
So, what’s the Federal Communications Commission to do with this information? FCC Commissioner Michael Copps has a few ideas, which he released the same day the ownership rules review was announced:
If a central tenet of our FCC mandate is to promote diversity in the media, which it is, then we need diverse ownership policies to help that happen. We need to pay attention to market realities and all the new media innovations that have developed since our last review, but uppermost in our minds must be crafting rules that serve the goals of democracy-building and democracy-maintenance.
It’s time for the FCC to roll back radio consolidation and better protect the public’s airwaves. The FCC may not be able to put the toothpaste back in the tube, but it can use the 2010 review to stop any more media consolidation. We don’t want radio produced for the masses. We want radio that reflects the complexity, personalities, talents and struggles of our own communities.
It’s vital that you tell the FCC what’s on your mind as soon as possible – Clear Channel and its corporate ilk certainly won’t stay silent. Be sure to send an email to the commission (at email@example.com) demanding an end to consolidation and a return to locally owned and operated radio stations.