Radio Rules

When I was growing up in rural Ohio, I did not consider the local radio station to be a vibrant example of active democracy. Its offerings of school delay announcements, rank amateur call-in shows, high school basketball games, and farm reports were boring to me. I wanted (but could not find) punk rock.

Twenty years later, I'm still looking for non-homogenized music and ideas on the airwaves, as well as the local news I dismissed in my youth. But diverse, independent news and music seem harder to find than ever. There are reasons for this.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 eliminated the limits on the number of media outlets a single company could own. Since then, the rate of consolidation has been astonishing. The number of independently owned stations has been halved. Nearly a third of existing radio stations have changed hands, with the top 10 owners having doubled their holdings. Pre-packaged, nationally distributed programming and multiple stations in a single city with the same (off-site) corporate owner are now the norm. The price is being paid in the "blanding" of American radio content, potentially fewer opportunities for independent or minority ownership of stations, and increased corporate control of news and music.

But these problem trends are not new. Deregulation only exacerbated them. Independent, local radio—the type that broadcasts school board and city council meetings or promotes grassroots neighborhood organizing projects—has been getting squeezed off the dial for two decades. In 1978, the Federal Communications Commission eliminated licenses for low-power (10 watt and under) non-commercial FM stations, largely at the behest of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which sought to eliminate "unprofessional" community-based stations. Some insist the ban on low-power stations should be maintained because of the potential for out-of-control interference with other stations and air traffic control systems.

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 1999
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