Saving radio in the satellite era

by Eric Klinenberg, New York Times

Radio is our most intimate medium — it wakes us in the morning, follows us into the shower, accompanies us during commutes and becomes a lifeline in emergencies. But radio is struggling to attract and retain an audience.

Today in Congress, the executives from XM and Sirius who propose merging into a $13 billion satellite monopoly will argue that consolidation offers the best hope for reviving radio. Traditional broadcasters also favor consolidation. In October, the National Association of Broadcasters asked the Federal Communications Commission to relax ownership limits in local markets, so companies could control yet more stations per town.

But does anyone believe that consolidation has been good for radio? During the past five years, I’ve traveled the country asking people to describe what has happened to their local stations, and not one has told me that radio is better than it was a decade ago. Listeners complained that their favorite local D.J.’s, talk show hosts and reporters have disappeared, replaced by syndicated shows, automated programs, predictable song cycles and endless commercials.

Before the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which allowed a company to own up to eight radio stations in a single market and an unlimited number nationwide, one could hear the sounds of Chicago, Philadelphia, New Orleans and Seattle through their local radio stations. Today, big-brand stations dominate the dial coast to coast. Radio no longer makes our hometowns feel like home.

Satellite radio companies grew during the 1990s by delivering refreshingly uninhibited content, mostly commercial-free. Although terrestrial broadcasters prevented XM and Sirius from providing local news and programming, the “satcasters” attracted more than 13 million paying customers. But start-up costs were high, and despite estimated 2006 revenues of more than $600 million at Sirius and $900 million at XM, both companies are running net deficits and their stock values are down.

The XM-Sirius deal is timed to win approval from the Republican-controlled F.C.C. and slip past a Democratic Congress promising to redress the problems borne of media consolidation. But it won’t be an easy sell. The same broadcast radio companies that lobbied to turn their own industry into a field of giants are opposed to consolidation in another. The National Association of Broadcasters has raised concerns about diversity and competition, and the F.C.C. is signaling its skepticism. If the merger is approved, it would (and should) come with conditions regarding space for public service and independent programming.

The more urgent challenge is to begin searching for alternate ways to revive radio. Consolidation is not the only option. Today broadcast stations are beginning to convert their signals to the digital spectrum, which allows for each owner to operate multiple stations in the same space. To date, the F.C.C. has imposed few restrictions on the way radio stations use these new outlets. The commission is both giving away a precious public resource and squandering a historic opportunity to enliven the airwaves.

Fortunately, there is a solution: Require every station that wants to add to its holdings to broadcast a minimum level of original, live and local material. This proposal is based on one of the most successful broadcast policies in American history. In the 1960s, when the F.C.C. opened the FM dial, AM stations rushed to acquire licenses — but then simulcast the same shows they were already playing. This was not what regulators had in mind, so they ruled that FM stations had to play original content on at least half of their programming hours. Because radio companies didn’t want to invest much in FM, they ceded control of their studios to young people and amateur broadcasters. The result was the advent of free-form music radio, with programs so fresh and compelling that listeners flocked to FM and stayed there — at least until corporate broadcasters standardized it, too.

It’s time for Congress and the F.C.C. to consider policy ideas intended to serve the public interest, like requiring broadcast radio stations to air original programming on the new digital stations, or allowing satellite companies to run local news, talk and music. Mega-mergers are unlikely to provide any real benefits to citizens and consumers. Why resort to even more consolidation when we already know it doesn’t work?

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