Fixing radio

by Jonathan Lawson, Clamor Magazine

What's wrong with radio? Everyone seems to have an answer. Our oldest form of electronic mass communication is still the most ubiquitous, found in homes, cars, and businesses across the country - not to mention fields, forests and streetcorners. Amidst an expanding array of media networks with national and international reach - now including satellite radio and Internet broadcasting as well as TV and cable networks - radio retains a local character which is its last unique asset.

The airwaves traversed by radio programs are public property, protected by regulations designed to ensure that broadcasters serve the public interest. At its theoretical best, the FCC protects a diverse media system reflecting differing community needs and voices across the country, and promotes quality broadcasting measured by the traditional standards of competition, diversity and 'localism' or local accountability.

However, over two decades, large media owners and business associations have adeptly persuaded Congress and the FCC to sweep away many public protections, allowing large-scale private media owners to squeeze out local owners, and to wring millions in profits out of the public airwaves with minimal oversight or accountability to local communities.

These changes have taken hold most dramatically in radio. When FCC Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein held hearings around the country to consider extending radio industry deregulation to other media, Copps described radio as "a very sick canary in the coal mine." Musicians hoping to get their music played on commercial FM face insurmountable hurdles. Music fans are unable to hear local bands. Local citizens scan the commercial FM dial in vain for balanced news reporting or local voices. Radio employees face layoffs, voice-tracking, anti-union management and reduced creative control. Still, many voices from within each of these groups care enough to ask whether radio can do a better job at serving local communities with cultural and informational programming. Can bad policy be turned into good policy?

Fixing Radio Forum

This question led an unusual coalition of music community advocates, media reformers and local broadcasters in Seattle to hold a public forum focused entirely on Fixing Radio. The forum took place last February in Seattle's Experience Music Project, a building designed by Frank Gehry to resemble the carcass of a smashed guitar - an icon perhaps of the trainwreck radio has become in the eyes of many critical listeners and broadcasters alike. Organizers hoped, however, that the forum would be able to harness this criticism, drawing creative solutions - and policy proposals - out of popular discontent.

"There's a unique moment in history here in terms of the policy apparatus around radio, a broad consensus in Congress and at the FCC that radio consolidation has gone way too far," said Michael Bracy of the DC-based Future of Music Coalition, one of the Fixing Radio planners and a speaker on the first of two panels. "It now falls on us as citizens to go to policymakers, and say: 'you've heard from the industry - Clear Channel, the National Association of Broadcasters - you've heard what they want from radio. This is what we want to happen with radio.'"

The discussion that emerged over a long afternoon ranged considerably, reflecting the diverse backgrounds of the participants. Panelists included representatives from each of the sponsoring organizations: the media activist group Reclaim the Media, the northwest regional chapter of the Recording Academy, the Future of Music Coalition and noncommercial modern rock station KEXP. Commercial radio was represented too - by Phil Manning, program director of highly-rated Entercom station KNDD "The End," and Frank Barrow, operations manager for the nation's largest cluster of black-owned stations, based in Seattle. Two Clear Channel representatives - an on-air host from Seattle urban station KUBE and an executive - were originally scheduled to take part, but got cold feet at the last minute. Other participants represented public, community, Low-Power FM and satellite radio operations, and labor unions representing musicians and radio employees.

Perhaps the most striking facet of the Fixing Radio discussion was the amount of shared frustration with contemporary commercial radio. Different panelists or constituencies saw different problems and different solutions - but all pointed to a single problem which overshadowed and fed into all others: the steroidal corporatism and massive consolidation which has transformed local radio.

Media Consolidation

The issue of ownership consolidation - particularly its largest practitioner, Clear Channel - was the 800-pound gorilla in the room throughout the forum. Deregulation of ownership caps allowed Clear Channel to rise from a 40-station regional chain to a 1300-station international titan in just a few years, turning the brand into a kind of national shorthand for a whole range of problems introduced or exacerbated by consolidation: reductions in local accountability and local content, expansion of barely legal payola or "pay-for-play" schemes, deceptive "voice tracking" attacks on the collective bargaining rights of employees, near-monopoly control of advertising and concert revenues in urban and rural areas.

The removal of sensible ownership caps in 1996 opened the door wide to these problems; these caps should be restored. David Meinert, regional president of the Recording Academy, went further. proposing the remedy used to deal with anti-consumer monopoly in the telecom business: corporate breakups. "I'm not scared to go to a legislator and say, look, you need to break up Clear Channel. And you not only need to break them up, you need to make sure that radio station owners can't own concert venues, and can't own newspapers," he added, referring to the FCC's 2003 decision (stayed by the courts) to strike down prohibitions on cross-media ownership.

"I do not want to live in a world where Clear Channel owns all the radio stations in a city, the Seattle P-I, and Channel 5," Meinert continued. "Already 50% of the people who get radio news get it from Clear Channel," Meinert added. "Those are George Bush's friends - I'm not happy about that. You know, we're going to live in a really fucked up world if that happens, and we need to do something about it." This was months before Clear Channel announced that Fox News would become its official network-wide news provider - likely to further expand both Clear Channel's news audience and the network's conservative slant.

Not everyone agreed that regulation offered the best solutions. "I don't see Clear Channel as that scary," said Sir Mix-a-Lot during a panel discussion. "I think they're so overwhelming that they're becoming stupid. They're totally ignorant of the marketplace. If you think I'm lying, go to any high school and all the kids listen to the same station, then ask do they like the station; they'll all tell you no. But there's no options." Mix argued that if new stations appeared with better programming, dominant stations would be forced to improve their own broadcasts or suffer loss of audience. But many radio markets are effectively closed to new broadcasters, due to crowding on the FM dial and the wild inflation in station prices which accompanied the consolidation rush in the late 1990s.

More importantly, expanding conglomerates like Clear Channel (and Entercom, and Viacom/Infinity) have less of a direct interest in producing great radio than in generating profits. Their primary constituencies are shareholders and advertisers - not their listeners, and even less so the general public.

What's Really Indecent?

All Fixing Radio panelists were instantly dismissive of the Congressional furor about broadcast indecency, which had made a huge media splash via Janet Jackson's Superbowl flash just weeks before. Several noted that the indecency issue seemed designed to deflect attention from more substantial debates about media ownership consolidation and localism. Moderator Mike Tierney, formerly program director of Clear Channel's hip-hop/urban station KUBE asked, "is 'decency' what localism has become?" He mocked Clear Channel's much-publicized decision to remove shock jock Howard Stern from its airwaves, pointing out that Stern was only on a handful of the company's stations anyway - but on far more stations owned by competitor Entercom. "Clear Channel kicking Howard off the air," summarized Tierney, "was like kicking your girlfriend's boyfriend off the couch."

The indecency debate has also distracted from questions about commercial radio's political content, noted several panelists. "What's really indecent, said KBCS public affairs director Bruce Wirth, "is that we're focusing on [Howard Stern] and Janet Jackson's tit, when we should be focusing on more important problems... Clear Channel is coming out smelling like roses because they voluntarily pulled Stern from a handful of stations...These are the same stations that were out there cheering the war that has wound up killing hundreds of Americans, not to mention Iraqi civilians."

Artists' concerns

For Ann Chaitowitz, director for sound recordings at the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), the flurry of calls to hike indecency fines brought up an additional set of concerns. Often, she said, radio companies like Clear Channel don't pay indecency fines themselves, instead passing them along to individual announcers or even musicians. The practice is deeply ironic, as ratings-hungry commercial networks clearly place demands on hosts like Stern and Bubba the Love Sponge to be as outrageous and offensive as possible, in their endless and craven pursuit of higher ratings and thus advertising revenue. Musicians, when producing their work, should not have to worry about the possibility of someday facing censorship or fines if a DJ somewhere offends a listener by playing their music.

Of course, that only becomes a concern if an artist's music makes it onto the air at all. That is an increasingly difficult challenge for local musicians when programming decisions are made at distant corporate headquarters, and the hurdles between artists and commercial airplay include controversial but widespread "tollbooth" practices involving the exchange of cash or services in exchange for a shot at airplay. For musicians and their advocates, such practices ought to be considered basic ethical violations, as well as barriers to the normal development of our shared music culture. Meinert argues that, under current industry conditions, it would have been impossible for Nirvana and other Seattle bands to have broken nationally, because local commercial rock stations no longer have the freedom to build playlists based on ground-up trends, absent the backing of industry forces.

Holding Broadcasters Accountable

The airwaves, of course, belong to the public. Their use by commercial broadcasters, licensed, but free of charge, constitutes a tremendous public subsidy. In return for their use of the airwaves, each station is bound to serve the public interest in various ways. Each station must apply to the FCC every few years to renew their licenses. If the FCC determines that a station has failed to provide valuable public service to its local audience, it can lose its license. This, however, never happens - and station managers know it.

"My personal opinion is that the renewal process is a sham," said KEXP manager Tom Mara. " I don't think it's too much to ask for a radio station to connect with its local community. The general manager of a station should walk into a room and be able to make a case to local organizations and local citizens why they should get that license again. I think the FCC ought to play an increased role in that - but that assessment also needs to be done locally, so it's not just a matter of sending a bunch of forms to Washington DC."

The flawed process lets bad stations slide while failing to recognize the achievements of good stations. "We're so local that it's a problem," says KRIZ operations manager Frank Barrow, taking pride in his station's public service record. "People call us before they call the police. We have connections with local African American communities...we garner loyalty among listeners by having an open door to community folks."

Several other Fixing Radio participants agreed with Mara that that license renewals should not only be tougher, but conducted locally, with public hearings and mechanisms allowing for real discussion of what a station should be doing for its community. Barrow remained skeptical, however. "The government is tough enough already," he said, and "[community] ascertainments are a farce." Still, he acknowledged that better accountability systems were certainly needed.

Even some commercial broadcasters expressed a wish for more articulate mechanisms for audience accountability. In commercial radio, profits are the ultimate bottom line. But for program directors it's the Arbitron ratings rather than profit/loss statements that hang directly over their heads. KNDD program director Phil Manning used the Fixing Radio forum to do a little venting about the system which many see as a very flawed measure. "When half of my damn listeners don't even fill out [the Arbitron listener diaries], and be accountable for their airwaves, it disallows me from taking risks. It forces commercial radio to unfortunately be conservative. It forces us to have these silly-ass 225-song playlists." Manning pointed out that Arbitron's diary system tends not to poll young listeners, saying "this is why you don't have youth-focused programming."

"When you're ratings-driven," added KBCS's Bruce Wirth, "who gets left out? Where's the diversity in that system? There's only one African-American personality in Seattle FM radio today; that's crazy. I can't think of a Latino personality either."

Low-Power and Community Radio

True community broadcasting, where it exists, offers the public direct ways to kick out the jams of mainstream monotony programming. Wirth's KBCS is an excellent example - a college-licensed station with an independent operations staff committed both to fielding a diverse on-air staff of local volunteers and training an expanding pool of community journalists for the station's local public affairs programs. "Community radio moves beyond localism," said Wirth. "It's about training community members to make their own radio, getting their voices on the air, not censored by some production staff or program directors."

In some areas of the country, Low-Power FM offers an opportunity for community groups, religious and civic organizations to launch their own noncommercial radio station with little cost. Unfortunately, full nationwide availability of LPFM has been delayed for years by opposition from the commercial broadcasting lobby and from National Public Radio. Activist groups including the Future of Music Coalition and Reclaim the Media are hopeful that legislation expanding LPFM will be reintroduced in Congress this spring.

More People's Hearings

The best ideas from the two-day Fixing Radio forum were eventually distilled into a concise set of 32 policy recommendations, published as the Seattle Statement on Radio. The document has since been put to work in various ways - submitted to the FCC as part of a national inquiry into localism, used as a tool for lobbying members of Congress, and serving as a template for media codes of conduct and other statements of principles.

Organizers also hope that their idea of holding a forum like this won't stop in Seattle. "This should happen all over the country," exclaimed a young man from the audience at the end of the Fixing Radio discussion. Several forum panelists had also taken part in one of the previous year's FCC hearings on ownership--but none of those formal hearings generated either the ranging, informal dialogue or the creative planning that emerged from the Fixing Radio forum.

While the Seattle forum took a hopeful look into radio's future, both the event and the resulting Seattle Statement left a whole range of important questions unexamined. When digital broadcasting dramatically increases the number of stations that can coexist on the radio dial, will local community groups and entrepreneurs have the opportunity to launch new local radio stations, or will existing broadcasters simply control more channels? Should localized programming on national satellite radio be encouraged or prohibited? How should the public interest be protected as digital networks continue to transform electronic media?

These and many other questions point out the need for many more public conversations about fixing media - and more local manifestoes on progressive media policy. While 2005 will see the FCC and Congress hold more such hearings in DC and around the country, the Fixing Radio forum showed that there's no reason for a community to wait around for them to arrive. Reflecting on his experience organizing around the previous' year's FCC hearing, band manager-turned-activist David Meinert laid it out simply: "going into that event we were told by a lot of people that the regulations were just going to be lifted, and that we had no chance. We ignored all that, we thought we could make a difference, and we made a difference. We can make a difference."

article originally published at .

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