Radio

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 The Telecommunications Act of 1996 repealed all limits on station ownership.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.

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 2003
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Jamming the Giants

For around $2,500 you too can be a DJ in the micro-radio revolution. That’s the hope following the Federal Communications Commission’s decision to license low-power FM (LPFM) radio stations, prompting cheers from community media advocates who for years have operated illegally as a diverse band of "pirate" stations.

Despite complaints from the corporate-backed National Association of Broadcasters about compromising "the integrity of the FM band," FCC chairman William Kennard declared that "this will bring many new voices to the airwaves."

The new rules mandate that all LPFM stations must be noncommercial, and current broadcasters or owners of other media interests will not be eligible for LPFM licenses.

"The corporate fat cats got used to thinking of the airwaves as their own private fiefdom, but the commissioners today reaffirmed that the airwaves belong to everyone," said Joan Dark, of the Prometheus Radio Project, a Philadelphia-based media activist group that helps create LPFM stations (www.prometheus.tao.ca).

As corporate media continue to consolidate, and Internet technologies remain out of reach for many, LPFM remains accessible, low-tech, and—with a maximum broadcast range of about seven miles—intrinsically rooted in community.

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Sojourners Magazine May-June 2000
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Praying for Air

Recently I’ve been irritated by the over-professionalization of American culture. We rely on professionals to bring us our music, our entertainment, even God—which causes our own creativity to wither, and leaves us lacking different ways to see the world. This is most prominent in the state of radio broadcasting today. But I find some hope for an opening of communications in the model of the church.

Most American radio today is a top-down form of communication—much like the Church in the Middle Ages. Then, Bibles were written in Latin, a language few people knew, and chained to the altars so only priests had access to them. Not until the Protestant Reformation and the invention of the printing press did people start getting direct access to the Word of God. Communication, which had been from God to priest to ordinary worshipper, was now opened up. The Reformation and the new mass communication tool of the printing press disrupted the hierarchy of the church.

Today, a similar response to the hierarchical control of the mass media is being generated through low-power radio. According to Felix Guattari, an Italian radio activist, "’popular free radio’...aims at changing the professionally mediated relationship between listener and speaker, and even challenging the listener/speaker dichotomy itself." In America, we generally accept radio as a one-way communications tool: We have music played at us and hundreds of ads beamed at us each day. The average listener rarely helps determine the actual content of a radio show.

With the low-power radio movement, this is beginning to change. People are realizing that, with a few hundred dollars, they can start their own radio stations, broadcasting to a radius of a couple of miles. They can invite their neighbors on the air to talk about local issues. They can play whatever music they want to hear. They can promote local causes. The standard communication order is being disrupted.

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Sojourners Magazine November-December 1999
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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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