Bringing back the music

[SF Chronicle editorial]

FOR THE PAST decade or so, listening to commercial radio has been an experience of diminishing returns. After the Telecommunications Act of 1996 allowed for mass consolidation in the radio industry, it seemed to bring about mass consolidation of music playlists, too. Once, a local radio station reflected the quirky character of its place with local bands. Now, whether you're in Des Moines or Miami, all the stations are playing the same tunes.

So, the news that four of the nation's largest broadcast radio companies are being fined $12.5 million for "pay-for-play" practices didn't come as much of a surprise. What's surprising is how their monetary settlement with the Federal Communications Commission and their parallel agreement with the American Association of Independent Music on the rules of engagement may affect the future of radio -- and the Internet.

These fines may be one of the best things to happen to commercial radio in a long time, because frankly, terrestrial radio has been cutting its own throat. Consolidation -- and pay for play -- may have brought parent companies big profits, but the resulting homogenization of the airwaves has turned off listeners. Younger listeners are turning to Webcasting, digital radio and iTunes to break the independent bands that would have once worked their way up through local and regional radio stations -- bands such as the Arcade Fire, for instance. The Arcade Fire makes the kinds of big, beautiful songs that have the potential to be a cultural touchstone for an entire generation -- apparent from their appearances on "Saturday Night Live,'' the fact that U2 chose their music as a pre-performance soundtrack on tour, and the fact that their debut album sold more than 300,000 copies. Yet the band, which records on independent labels, is absent from commercial radio. If radio doesn't pick up on bands such as this, it's going to lose its role as a democratic force for mass culture.

The top four broadcasters' agreement with A2IM to dedicate 8,400 half-hour blocks of airtime to independent music is the first step toward winning back their credibility as taste-makers. Even more encouraging is the fact that they've agreed to voluntary rules of engagement that focus on equal access and transparency. If the broadcasters abide by this agreement -- a big if -- the result could be better chances for local and independent bands to get their music heard, and a return of some of the vibrancy that radio has lost.

More intriguing is what the settlement says about the FCC. Though oversight of the broadcasters is the FCC's job, it didn't launch this investigation -- Eliot Spitzer, the then-state attorney general for New York, did, when he started looking at the radio groups for consumer fraud. The FCC has been too busy with partisan infighting to do adequate policing, and that doesn't look good for those of us who are concerned about the Internet -- another industry where a few private players (in the telecommunications industry) may, short of net neutrality laws, soon exact undue influence over what's available for public consumption. That music you're hearing on the radio is the FCC's wake-up call.

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey