Broadcast deregulation and radical radio

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Wed Mar 7 12:26:25 MST 2001

Bob McChesney has written extensively on media consolidation, democratic
media, and corporate/government control of the airwaves. This article
provides a framework for understanding how absolutely *irreplaceable* WBAI
is, because of the larger picture of media ownership and regulatory policy.

Fight on!



Published in the March 2001 issue of the Silicon Alley Reporter

Farewell to Radio by Robert W. McChesney

Radio is the quintessential people's medium. It is the least expensive
medium to produce a quality product and the least expensive medium to
receive. It is ideally suited to local, decentralized content and popular
participation in production. Due to low production costs, radio is also
ideal for creative innovation. Nor does it does not require any technical
expertise or even literacy to use radio effectively. Even in the Age of the
Internet, by all accounts good old radio is going to be around for a long
time still, at least as long as there are automobiles. And in places like
Africa and parts of Asia, radio will be the dominant medium for another

In the United States, however, radio is anything but the people's medium.
It is the private preserve of a small number of billionaires who are
falling all over themselves to better serve the needs of Madison Avenue. I
do not wish to romanticize the nature of U.S. radio broadcasting from
bygone days, but the fact is that the present day radio is nothing short of

The reason is clear. There are only a few dozen radio channels in a given
community. In 1996 the Telecommunications Act greatly revised the rules for
radio station ownership. Back in the 70s and 80s, firms could only own
around a dozen stations nationwide and no more than two in a single market.
The 1996 law, rammed though by the powerful corporate radio lobby without a
shred of debate or media coverage, eliminated any restriction on the number
of stations a firm could own nationally, and raised the limit in a single
market to eight, in the largest communities.

Since the law passed, there has been a complete reformation of U.S radio,
with well over half the 11,000 commercial station changing hands. Small
station groups can not compete with the giant chains so they sell out.
Radio is now dominated by a small handful of firms that own hundreds of
stations each. Every market is now dominated by two or three firms that are
"maxed out" with eight stations each. The quality of radio has plummeted.
With little competition, the amount of advertising is up to 18 minutes per
hour, according to one industry trade publication, well over the figure for
a decade ago. Also, localized news and production has been dropped for
vastly less expensive standardized fare. You could be blindfolded and
airdropped into Louisiana, Oregon or Vermont and probably hear the same
oldies song or Rush Limbaugh show on the local radio.

Clear Channel, which owns around 800 stations, has shined the light on the
new world order of corporate radio. It usually houses all eight stations it
owns in a given community on one floor of a building. Each "station" gets
one room about the size of a closet where it can transmit standardized
fare. The remaining office space is mostly for the ad salespeople.

In other industries, like computers or automobiles, there might be
arguments that having fewer owners is necessary for economies of scale that
will eventually translate into product innovation and lower prices for
consumers. No such claims can be made in radio. All the advantages accrue
to the owners, none to the public. The stations now cost a fortune, not
because the cost of production is high, but because stations are worth so
much as part of these massive radio chains. It is a rip-off, pure and
simple. And the rip-off has nothing to do with free markets; it is entirely
due to a corrupt change in the law regulating the publicly owned radio

The rational solution would be to only allow one station per owner, period.
The cost of stations would plummet, while the quality and diversity and
local orientation would skyrocket. Everyone would benefit except the
radio-owning billionaires who currently floss their teeth with politicians'
underpants. So don't hold your breath expecting any policies to improve

In fact, the radio monopolists have won two incredible anti-democratic
victories in the recent past. First, the FCC enacted a very cautious plan
to permit low-power FM radio broadcasting in the open slots on the dial in
2000. This would have permitted a handful of noncommercial locally run
stations, that cost only $2,000 using new technology to transmit a great
signal, into every market. But the radio giants used their leverage on
Capital Hill to get a rider effectively killing "microradio" attached to a
budget bill Clinton could not veto. The last thing the radio giants want is
genuine competition for "their" listeners.

Second, radio is in the process of being converted from analog to digital.
With the transfer to digital, it would be fairly easy to add another 30-50
radio stations in every market. But the corporate radio bosses don't want
any competition, so that won't happen. Under pressure from the radio
kingpins, the FCC is going to permit digital radio to remain as is, except
for the technical changeover, and be the private plaything of the same
wonderful radio giants who are presently carpetbombing the nation with
stale content and tons of commercials. The radio giants promise us that
with digital radio, "the change will be so simple, most listeners won't
notice any difference at all."

Wow, that sure is good news, eh?

Louis Proyect
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