America’s first newspaper, Publick Occurrences, Both Foreign and Domestick, was born on Sept. 25, 1690. Printed by Richard Pierce and edited by Benjamin Harris, this Boston paper was only three pages long and included newsworthy information about smallpox, the immoralities of the King of France, colonial gossip, and critical accounts of the foreign and domestic policies of the colonies. Harris stated that he aimed to "cure the spirit of lying" on a monthly basis, unless, "if any Glut of Occurrences happen, oftener."
The paper never made it past its initial issue. The Massachusetts bureaucracy, perhaps enraged at Harris’ tendency to report "real" news, immediately shit down Publick Occurrences on the basis that Harris did not possess a license and was printing without authority.
Fast-forward 300-plus years, where technology has provided a seemingly endless variety of media outlets. Whether we’re seeking the latest gossip, info about the cicada plague, reports on American involvement in foreign countries or a current Top 40 single, there are various ways to find this info as "oftener" as we please. If we’re too busy to read the daily paper, we can get the CliffsNotes version on the Internet. If we’re too lazy to read altogether, we can listen to NPR or turn on the TV and watch a shellac-haired reported deliver the morning news as we brush our teeth.
If you own a TV, radio, computer, or subscribe to any publication, you may have noticed that there are fewer and fewer companies claiming ownership of more and more of these media outlets. You also may have noticed increasingly transparent bias or the mounting homogenization of contents in these outlets, or, at least, in the many news reports detailing these trends. Or maybe you’ve chosen to ignore this information in favor of checking out what Charlize Theron wore to the Oscars, so we’re going to give you a concise, under-3,000-words (OK, I lied, it’s way longer than that, but I tried to keep it interesting) version of what’s been going on regarding radio, and how it’s affected the general public and, specifically, the music community.
THE FCC AND THE TELECOMMUNICATIONS ACT OF 1996
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was organized in 1945, when the Supreme Court decreed "the widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources is essential to the welfare of the public, that a free press is a condition of a free society." The FCC was designed to uphold this distribution of information from said diverse and antagonistic sources. Today, their website states that their "strategic goal for media is to revise medial regulations so that media ownership rules promote competition and diversity in a comprehensive, legally sustainable manner and facilitate the mandated migration to digital modes of delivery." As the industry is constantly challenged by ownership changes, FCC policy legal issues, converging industries and technological advances, the FCC hold biennial reviews to ensure that the policies are relevant to the current state of the market. Their objectives include enforcing rules that encourage diversity and competition; building and updating a foundation for media ownership regulation; and encouraging the development and deployment of digital services.
Throughout the years, we’ve seen multi-media companies merge, gobbling up the existing media outlets in a given market and gaining majority control over what information reaches the public. Radio has been hit the hardest by this trend, thanks to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which was the first successful effort to revamp the Communications Act of 1934. The 1996 Act lifted previous ownership restrictions, enabling companies to purchase a limitless number of radio stations nationwide. In theory, the Act was designed to improve the economy of the media industry by enabling radio companies to buy multiple stations, cashing in on "efficiencies of scale." However, as this continued at an exponential rate, a handful of media conglomerates bought out the majority of the market. One of the most significant parts of this Act was the elimination of cross-market barriers, which had previously prevented businesses in one industry from providing services in another. In June 2003, the FCC offered revised rules on media ownership, further altering the regulations.
The Telecommunications Act was allegedly designed to create a level playing field with universal rules in the communications industries, specifically public broadcasting (both radio and TV), cable TV, telephone services, Internet services and telecommunications equipment manufacturing. Upon signing the bill, President Clinton declared that it would "stimulate investment, promote competition, provide open access for all citizens to the Information Superhighway." Reed Hundt, then-FCC Chair, gave a speech at the passage of the Telecom Act stating, "We are fostering innovation and competition in radio… In our broadcast ownership rules we also seek to promote diversity in programming and diversity in the viewpoints expressed on the powerful medium that so shapes our culture. ["The Hard Road Ahead," Reed Hundt, speech given Dec. 26, 1996]. The idea that competition among the communication industries would incite mergers, consolidations, acquisition and continued amalgamation of services was viewed as positive, though the impact on radio alone has proved otherwise. According to an FCC report ["Radio Industry Review 2002: Trends in Ownership, Format, and Finance," George Williams and Scott Roberts, Media Bureau, FCC], the average number of radio station owners in each market decreased from 13.5 to 9.9 between 1996 and 2002, while the average number of formats was effectively unchanged. In addition, advertising rates rose by 68 percent during this time frame.
Case in point: the rise of the behemoth that is Clear Channel Communications.
IN 1972 an investment banker named L. Lowry Mays bought a radio station in San Antonio. At the time, federal law prevented a company from owning more than seven FM and seven AM stations. The number steadily increased throughout the years, but the final nail in the coffin was the ’96 Telecommunications Act which allowed companies to purchase up to eight stations per market – with no restrictions nationwide. More than a thousand mergers happened in the subsequent year. In 1996 Mays’ company, Clear Channel, owned 43 radio stations. Today Mays’ empire controls more than 1,200 radio stations in over 300 cities – dominating the audience share in most of the major markets – clocking in at roughly 11 percent of the market, reaching approximately 100 million listeners daily.
CURRENT RADIO OWNERSHIP RULES (courtesy of Media Access Project)
Local Radio Ownership: Allows ownership of up to eight radio stations (on a sliding scale) in a local market, depending on total number of stations in that market. (Under view by FCC as of Feb. 2002)
Local Radio-Television Cross Ownership: Permits up to two TV and six radio stations (or one TV and seven radio) so long as there are at least the 20 independent voices in the market (TV, radio, daily newspapers, cable service).
Clear Channel’s power extends even beyond the airwaves. After purchasing billboard giant Eller Media, they now control the largest percentage of outdoor advertising (over 700,000 outdoor displays worldwide). They also claim ownership of 39 television stations, including affiliate stations for NBC, CBS, ABC, FOX, WB, PAX and UPN. In 2000 they purchased SFX, Inc., a sports and live entertainment business, so now Clear Channel owns, operates or books entertainment for approximately 135 live venues worldwide and is the nation’s largest concert promoter and live entertainment operator. They are also the biggest player in the Broadway road tour business. According to a corporate profile conducted by Cornell University ["The Clear Picture on Clear Channel Communications, Inc.," Jan. 28, 2004], "In 2002 Clear Channel sold more than 30 million more than its closest competitor"…
TOP RADIO COMPANIES (Cornell Study)
|Rank||Company||Number of Stations Owned|
…FCC Commissioner Michael Copps recently told the Columbia Journalism Review that "We need to be looking much more intently at how consolidation issues affect minorities and contributes to the objective of diversity – diversity of programming, diversity of ownership, diversity of opportunities." It doesn’t take a national research project to determine that commercial radio suffers from a lack of diversity, though the Cornell study summed it up pretty nicely: "The detrimental impact of [Clear Channel’s] business practices on localism, diversity of programming, and, possibly, public safety cannot be ignored." And since radio employs a frequency spectrum that is technically owned by the public, the public has every right to be upset with what’s going on…
Many suspicions have arisen over how close the relationship is between Clear Channel and the current administration. The Cornell University report states, "For most of Clear Channel’s history, political activity has not been a significant part of its operating strategy. But in the last three years the company has created a formidable lobbying operation that involves political connections, primarily with the Republicans, throughout government from the municipal level up to the White House." Michael Powell, chairman of the FCC and son of Secretary of State Colin Powell, is a Republican. The Cornell study reports that between 2000 and 2002, Clear Channel’s campaign contributions totaled more than $700,000, with 75 percent going to Republican candidates. An AFL-CIO study estimates that during that same period, Clear Channel’s political contributions totaled $1 million, with 75 percent going to Republican candidates. According to the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics (www.crp.org), Clear Channel’s political action committee gave 77 percent of their $334,501 in federal contributions – a larger share than any other entertainment company – to Republicans. In addition, Clear Channel executive had given (at press time) $42,400 to Bush and on $1,750 to expected Democratic nominee John Kerry for the 2004 election.
By way of syndicated talk show host Glenn Beck, Clear Channel supported the organization of pro-war rallies in Atlanta, Philadelphia, Houston, Memphis and Washington, D.C., among other cities. The AFL-CIO study also cites that a radio personality was fired after speaking out against the war in Iraq. Clear Channel was accused of engaging in partisan political activity in Jackson, Miss. [Mississippi Clarion Ledger, June 3, 2001], after discontinuing airing radio ads that were paid for by the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Not that Clear Channel is the only player in the politics game – between 1996 and 2000, the 50 biggest media trade organizations spent roughly $111 million lobbying Congress [Charles Lewis, "Media Money," Columbia Journalism Review, Sept./Oct. 2000]. And many of the giant media conglomerates benefit from their relationship with the current ruling party. According to the Columbia Journalism Review, former FCC chairman Reed Hundt told Salon that "the [FCC’s June 2, 1993] vote was less about principles of diversity, competition, and localism than an effort to strengthen a powerful alliance between the political right and the Big Media." The Columbia Journalism Review ["Media Monopoly: Behind the Mergers: Q&A" by Neil Hickey, May/June 2002] also reports that "Democrats usually favor retaining regulations and Republicans don’t," though Hickey points out that sometimes the issue crosses party lines, citing as an example Mississippi Republican Senator Trent Lott (who, in 2002, support that the 35 percent cap should remain enforced).
Critics have also charged that the Bush administration has altered antitrust procedures, allowing the Justice Department – which is part of the executive branch, run by presidential appointees – to have oversight of the media mergers. The Federal Trade Commission, which is a bipartisan, independent agency, does not have jurisdiction in these mergers. If you want to find out more about partisan donations, go to the Federal Elections Commission website, www.fec.gov, which tracks all campaign contributions.
EFFECTS ON THE GENERAL PUBLIC
…According to Advertising Age, if the FCC further tightens restrictions on the public airwaves, listeners – especially the younger demographic – will be driven to seek out alternatives such as satellite radio or cable TV, an option that many consumers have already adopted. This will effectively fragment the media audience, causing a major shift in American media, and broadcast radio and TV will grow increasing homogeneous and bland. Radio and television networks will have to compete against these growing businesses, and some experts theorize that, at worst, free radio and television broadcasts will eventually be completely obliterated in favor of the unregulated outlets. A fatalist view shows a multinational company controlling the local newspapers, television and radio stations, Internet service provider, cable system, magazines, etc. This company will be able to cross-promote according to their own agenda, catering to the needs of advertisers and stockholders rather than the community.
It may sound extreme, but we’ve already witnessed events that show that this outcome isn’t out of the question. Earlier this year, Air America launched a liberal talk radio network, featuring hosts such as Chuck D. and Al Franken. John Sinton, co-founder and president of Air America, told Rolling Stone [June 10, 2004] that the network had encountered financial roadblocks after having to lease high-priced time, because companies such as Clear Channel and Infinity refused to broadcast Air American programming. While Air America is broadcast on satellite radio and its Internet streams are among the most popular online, Sinton comments that in "the post-consolidated radio world, a handful of people own all the beachfront property." The Cornell study notes that "Many labor leaders believe that [Clear Channel’s] record of supporting conservative viewpoints is part of a deliberate corporate strategy to curry favor with conservative decision-makers in Washington, D.C." Clear Channel and Infinity’s refusal to broadcast Air America silences the left side of the political spectrum, while conservative on-air personalities such as Dr. Laura Schlessinger and Rush Limbaugh are syndicated through Clear Channel on multiple stations in multiple markets.
REGULATORY CHANGES FOR RADIO (Info compiled from Cornell study)
Rules before the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996: Radio companies could own only two stations per market and no more than 40 nationwide.
Rules enacted by the Telecommunications Act: Radio companies could own eight stations in local markets and an unlimited amount nationwide. The local ownership cap used a sliding scale in which companies could own eight in markets with at least 45 stations and five in markets with 14 or less stations. Companies were barred from owning more than half the stations in a given market.
Rules enacted on June 2, 2003: The FCC employed a new method in which to define a "radio market" by dropping overlapping signal contours and relying upon Arbitron’s geographic boundary measurements. These regulations would allow a maximum of seven stations in markets that previously would have allowed eight, reducing ownership limits in several markets nationwide. This may require that Clear Channel, among other companies, has to relinquish control of stations in certain markets.
Clear Channel defends their consolidation on the basis that they can effectively identify their specific listening audiences for each station and, through market segmentation, better reach the intended audience through advertising. As the Washington Post reported [Feb. 28, 2003[, Mark Mays, president of Clear Channel Communications and son of founder Lowry Mays, stated that Americans "like" the results of media consolidation and that Clear Channel plays "music our listeners want to hear." The Future of Music Coalition study showed that radio consolidation has made it difficult for listeners to hear anything off the beaten path, and the numbers prove that they don’t "like" it – while radio still reaches a large number of adult listeners, time spent listening is at a 27-year low. This study also revealed that 78 percent of survey respondents want longer playlists with more variety and 80 percent were in favor of action to prevent further consolidation…
HOW DO WE FIX THIS?
This isn’t a problem that we can slap a Band-Aid on. With the continued media consolidation, the FCC – Chairman Powell, specifically – has been criticized for hiding the issue from the public by not hold more public hearings on media ownership. According to the American Journalism Review [Dec./Jan. 2004, "News Blackout," Chris Layton], "In the first five months of 2003, when the FCC was debating the media cross-ownership rules that were overturned in June of that year, the commercial TV and cable networks showed ‘virtually no coverage’ of the issue, with the big networks typically airing nothing until a week before the FCC decision." Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, told the Washington Post [June 2, 2003], "Powell refused to conduct [adequate] public hearings, he refused to have 30- or 60-day debates on the rules, he has been unwilling to reach out to the public." FCC Commissioner Copps has stated that more intensive investigation is needed, and that the FCC needs to "get out into some of these markets, get the feel of them, and draw on new expert out there." After Chairman Powell refused a request from Commissioner Copps and Jonathan Adelstein for a public airing of pending media concentration rules in May of 2003, Copps released a statement, "We are rushing to passage new rules without letting the American people know who is going to own and control the public airwaves for years to come and without gaining the benefit of their input on what is being proposed. This is no way to do business when critical issues affecting every American are at stake."
In fact, had there been more public hearings in the first place, events might have taken a different course. According to writer Eric Boehlert ["One Big Happy Channel?" Salon, July 10, 2001], when the Telecommunications Act was being assembled in 1995, the roughly 200 pages of legislation focused on phone companies, the V-chip, promoting competition, monitoring Internet porn, and deregulating cable rates, among other issues. A provision lifting ownership limits for radio station broadcasters nationwide received little public attention – President Clinton didn’t even mention it during the bill signing – and ended up being the source of all this controversy. According to Salon, "Without the FCC’s input or any public hearings, the kind of sweeping deregulation that most broadcasters hadn’t even fantasized about two years earlier was ushered in overnight"… Clinton later admitted in 2001 that the Telecommunications Act caused "more consolidation than we wanted" in radio.
What was essentially an afterthought in the Telecommunications Act caused the most impact in the media industry, and it also caused a riff within the radio industry. In 1995, the National Association of Broadcasters lobbied in favor of deregulation; nowadays, smaller broadcast companies are resisting any further consolidation, while the big companies are obviously still supporting it.
There are some signs that Americans are starting to realize the severity of the situation. According to a poll conducted by the Boston Globe [April 14, 2004], ’70 percent of respondents said that news outlets were often influenced by powerful people and organizations." The Pew Study also reported that "70 percent [of people who have heard a lot about the FCC’s cross-ownership rule change] say the impact on the country will be negative, while only 6 percent say it will be positive." Copps continues, "There seems to be a rising ride of concern in the country about consolidation. I think it’s got a long, long way to go. We’ve got to get the media doing their part to cover the issues and let the American people know these issues are up for decision."
According to the Columbia Journalism Review’s Neil Hickey, the general public doesn’t know much about the updates regarding the whole situation because "broadcast and cable news people practically never cover it" and "the greatest majority [of newspapers] bury it in the business pages if they treat it at all."
You can educate yourself on the FCC’s actions through websites such as www.freepress.net, www.fcc.gov and www.aftra.org, where you can find dates and times of the FCC’s public hearings (at the Free Press site, you can send an e-mail to demand a hearing in your state), along with links to past reports. Websites for the Media Access Project (www.mediaaccess.org) and Moveon.org (www.moveon.org) provide information on how citizens can stay informed and take action by contacting senators and representatives or organizing with people within their community. This can have an impact on proceedings on Capitol Hill – Andrew Jay Schwartzman, executive director of the Media Access Project, told the Washington Post [June 2, 2003], "hundreds of thousands of postcards" that protested the proposed changes to media ownership regulation last year "have taken Powell and his two fellow Republicans on the commission by surprise." Schwartzman points out that while Moveon.org received 3,000 responses regarding the Bush tax cut, they got roughly 180,000 regarding media ownership. Commissioner Adelstein reported that by the end of last summer, over 2.3 million people had contacted Congress or the FCC to oppose further media concentration. New rulings imposed in June 2003 prevented Clear Channel from buying more stations in specific markets, and will prevent other radio companies from growing at the pace Clear Channel did. In addition, the Telecommunications Act requires the RCC to review the regulations and modify or create ownership policies and rules that are consistent with the current media marketplace at the biennial review. Mark 2005 on your calendars.
|American Federation of
Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA)
|American Federation of
|Center for Digital
|Columbia Journalism Review
|Consumer Federation of
|Media Access Project
|Future of Music Coalition
|National Association of
Remember Benjamin Harris, editor of Publick Occurrences? He reportedly fled England after printing "seditious" matter, hoping to find a more free and open society across the Atlantic. Our ancestors designed the Bill of Rights with the intention that We, the People – including the press – would retain the right to comment freely on the power that be. In order to ensure diversity and accountability in this public forum, there must be room for all voices to be heard. We need to demand that the FCC returns to their original purpose of managing and regulating the media on our behalf.
Mr. Harris, we’ll keep working on it.
(The above article was excerpted from Performing Songwriter, July/August 2004. For the article’s entirety, visit www.performingsongwriter.com/pages/79/.)