A Clear Channel With Nothing On

"There goes the last DJ who plays what he wants to play.... There goes your freedom of choice. There goes the last human voice."
—Tom Petty, 2002

A generation ago, as Tom Petty well knows, radio was one of the great joys of the mythic American cross-country drive. Barreling across the continent, you could hear the accents and musical preferences change with the landscape outside your car window. Today it doesn't matter if you are in Springfield, Missouri, or Springfield, Massachusetts. The music, the voices, and even most of the ads are the same. The airwaves are one big interstate strip of chain stores, and Petty's "last DJ" is muttering to himself on the unemployment line.

That fact, which any casual listener has noticed, was thoroughly documented in a recent study called "Radio Deregulation: Has It Served Citizens and Musicians?" conducted by the Future of Music Coalition in Washington, D.C. For six decades there were limits on how many stations any single company could own, nationwide or in any given market. This kept radio locally based and relatively accessible, at least compared to network-dominated television. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 repealed all limits on station ownership. Since then, 10 companies have come to control two-thirds of the radio audience share and revenues. Two of those companies—Clear Channel and Viacom—control 42 percent of the radio audience and take in 45 percent of the radio-related dollars. Clear Channel is the Wal-Mart and McDonald's of radio monopolization. Since 1996, the Clear Channel chain has grown from 40 stations to 1,240. Meanwhile, in any given week, between 80 and 100 percent of the songs on the various radio charts (pop, r&b, country, rock, etc.) are released by only five major record companies.

As a result, there is simply no more room in America's cultural mainstream for local, innovative, or original human voices. Many chain stations, in fact, carry the same programming, with the same announcers, from coast to coast. Radio used to be the most local of media. It was where you turned for high school basketball games, farm-market reports, and local church broadcasts. When I was a teenager, one of my friends had a part-time job as a local DJ in our town of 20,000. On a slow night, I could drive down to the station with a stack of my favorite records and sit in the booth while he played them on the air.

Today when you visit your local radio station, there's a good chance that you won't even find a disc jockey. Instead there will be a computer receiving and broadcasting the feed from some undisclosed location in the ether. Where I live today, the local country station—which is still locally owned—does play bluegrass in the early morning hours (oh blessed holdover), and it does broadcast local ballgames. But the rest of the day, and all of the night, it's an unmanned vehicle delivering a "classic country" format that comes in off a satellite from God-knows-where.

THIS HOMOGENIZATION eventually will be the death of the musical culture that has been among America's greatest gifts to the world. The emergence of rock and roll was one of the most significant cultural events in the last half of the 20th century, and by now the origins of rock are thoroughly documented. The process began way back in the 1920s when the biracial musical culture of the Southern states began to be recorded, but the great synthesis of the 1950s happened because black and white people were hearing each other's music on the radio—at first in the South, then nationwide. This outsider music reached the mainstream through regionally based independent record companies—Sun in Memphis, Chess in Chicago, King in Cincinnati, etc.—and through a handful of disc jockeys, including Symphony Sid in Boston, Dewey Phillips in Memphis, and Alan Freed in Cleveland and New York.

These DJs weren't corporate functionaries. They were cultural visionaries who heard the sound of a new America and gave it form on the air. At its heart, the cultural revolution called rock and roll was locally rooted in the relationship between performers, audience, and entrepreneur. It was not an efficient business model; it was an organic, communal process.

This was true in the beginning, and it was true of every subsequent creative development in American music. They all emerged from a specific community in a specific time and place. If you think about it, most of them are identified with place names—Memphis soul, Motown, New York punk, Midwestern metal, L.A. gangsta rap, Seattle grunge, etc. Such cultural insurrections will continue to happen as long as America remains relatively free. But the monopolization of the record and radio industry seems to ensure that none of them will ever reach a national audience again.

HOW DID THIS happen to us? How did the big boys (and a very few big girls) tame this last outpost of the pioneer spirit? It was just the usual confluence of money and politics. Remember Newt Gingrich, the Contract with America, and the Republican Revolution? Well, the Telecommunications Act was—along with welfare reform—the most lasting and far-reaching accomplishment of that brief era.

Since the 1930s, American law has held the broadcast airwaves (now including the frequencies for cell phones and wireless Internet) to be the property of the American people as a whole, held in trust by our elected national government. This notion was, and is, anathema to the new breed of free market Republicans. And in the Telecommunications Act, they did everything they could to wipe it out. The entire media industry, from The Washington Post and The New York Times to the Hollywood studios, jumped on the bandwagon. That industry, of course, includes many of the big funders of the Democratic Party, so the opposition was marginal. The Telecommunications Act rolled through Congress and was signed by President Clinton, right alongside the 1996 welfare reform, which banished the concept of an entitlement to government assistance for the poorest Americans.

In 1996, Federal Communications Commission chair Reed Hundt claimed that the new changes in broadcasting rules would "promote diversity in programming and diversity in the viewpoints expressed" on the radio. The Future of Music Coalition study clearly shows that the opposite has occurred. We've been left with fewer choices, fewer voices, and less local control.

Danny Duncan Collum is a Sojourners contributing editor. The FCC, now chaired by Michael Powell, son of Secretary of State Colin Powell, is reconsidering the issue of station ownership rules. For the latest developments and to read the "Radio Deregulation" report, go to www.futureofmusic.org.

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