Radio Is Wrecked--But It Can Be Repaired
The Future of Music Coalition [FMC], the alliance of musicians and music fans that conducts the nuts-and-bolts research on media consolidation that should be done by the Federal Communications Commission, has completed a groundbreaking study documenting the damage done to American culture by consolidation of radio-station ownership.
The report confirms what is already known, at least anecdotally, by anyone who has tried to listen to the radio since Congress, with the Telecommunications Act of 1996, essentially eliminated controls on the number of stations that can be owned by a single company. That change opened the way for Clear Channel Radio to expand from a relatively small company with a few dozen radio stations into a media conglomerate that now controls more than 1,200 stations nationwide.
Radio listeners and media activists have known for a long time that the one-size-fits-all-markets approach of Clear Channel and other big radio firms is no good for the public discourse or the culture.
Unfortunately, the FCC and Congress have resisted reform, claiming that consolidation is, if not good, at least benign.
The FMC report, "False Premises, False Promises: A Quantitative History of Ownership Consolidation in the Radio Industry," confirms that listeners, musicians and activists have, indeed, been right to conclude that something is very wrong with consolidated radio.
"Radio consolidation has no demonstrated benefits for the public. Nor does it have any demonstrated benefits for the working people of the music and media industries, including DJs, programmers and musicians. The Telecom Act unleashed an unprecedented wave of radio mergers that left a highly consolidated national radio market and extremely consolidated local radio markets. Radio programming from the largest station groups remains focused on just a few formats--many of which overlap with each other, enhancing the homogenization of the airwaves," explains Peter DiCola, the FMC research director who wrote the report.
DiCola, one of the country's most respected analysts of media ownership issues, adds, "From the recent new-payola scandal to the even more recent acknowledgments that giant media conglomerates have begun to fail as business models, we can see that government and business are catching up to the reality that radio consolidation did not work. Instead, the Telecom Act worked to reduce competition, diversity and localism, doing precisely the opposite of Congress's stated goals for the FCC's media policy. Future debates about how to regulate information industries should look to the radio consolidation story for a warning about the dangers of consolidated control of a media platform."
Among the specific conclusions of the report are that:
* The top four radio station owners have almost half of the listeners and the top ten owners have almost two-thirds of listeners. This means that a handful of companies control what the overwhelming majority of Americans hear on the radio.
* The "localness" of radio ownership--ownership by individuals who live in the community--declined by almost one-third between 1975 and 2005.
* Just fifteen formats make up three-quarters of all commercial programming. Moreover, radio formats with different names can overlap up to 80 percent of the time in terms of the songs played on them.
* Niche musical formats like classical, jazz, Americana, bluegrass, new rock and folk, where they exist, are provided almost exclusively by smaller station groups.
* Across 155 markets, radio listenership has declined over the past fourteen years, a 22 percent drop since its peak in 1989. The consolidation allowed by the Telecom Act has failed to reverse this trend. In fact, it may well have caused the trend to accelerate.
In addition to confirming the crisis, the Future of Music Coalition is making specific recommendations about how to address it. In particular, DiCola suggests that, while the FCC should certainly maintain the few ownership caps that remain in place, a case can be made for restoring more stringent caps on ownership--a move that could force the largest radio conglomerates to divest themselves of at least some of their stations.
"Ownership caps on radio-station ownership prevent concentration of economic, social and political power," argues DiCola, who explains that by the standard measures of such things, concentration of radio-station ownership has reached a high level in the national market and dangerous levels in most local markets.
DiCola says "the FCC could justify a lower cap" and argues that a host of other reforms are necessary to restore localism and diversity--both in content and in ownership--to a radio industry that is rapidly losing both of those precious commodities.
"Radio has great importance for our culture, our economy and our democracy," argues DiCola. "The public deserves to see it repaired."