Special: Commentary: Robert W. McChesney: ‘Farewell to Radio’

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. 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 pathetic.

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 of the 11,000 commercial stations 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 spectrum.

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 matters.

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?

– A Brief Bio –

Robert W. McChesney is author of Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times (New Press) and (with John Nichols) It’s the Media, Stupid (Seven Stories). rwmcches@uiuc.edu

Published in the March 2001 issue of the Silicon Alley Reporter

Author: Robert W. McChesney

News Service: Silicon Alley Reporter

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