With the FCC poised to relax media ownership rules again in December, the U.S. Senate is starting to get the message from constituents that maybe it’s not such a great idea. During hearings today, Merge records founder and Superchunk frontman Mac McCaughan testified about the sad state of radio:
The deregulation that followed the 1996 Telecommunications Act allowed for unprecedented consolidation in commercial radio, which has resulted in a homogeneity that is often out-of-step with artists, entrepreneurs, media professionals and educators—not to mention listeners.
Of course, he couldn’t resist getting in a couple plugs for Merge artists Arcade Fire and Spoon:
In 2007, two of the albums we released–by the bands Arcade Fire and Spoon–both debuted in the Billboard Top Ten. They appeared on Saturday Night Live. The mainstream print media has written extensively about them, and both bands tour the world, playing highly successful, sold out concerts. Yet both of these bands have been virtually absent from the commercial airwaves.
Well how do you think they got in the Top Ten? Mac was out there promoting to their target demographics: our nation’s elected officials. Actually, he’s not being entirely honest: Arcade Fire has received significant radio support, even from giant mainstream juggernauts like LA’s KROQ (see “Wake Up” at #37 on their 2005 year-end countdown… right above Foo Fighters). But Arcade Fire are the exception that proves the rule.
Back in 1996, the Telecommunications Act did have an effect on radio, and I saw it from the inside: San Francisco’s LIVE 105 (my former employer) used to be owned by a small Seattle broadcasting company, and its playlist reflected that independence; but then it was bought by Infinity Broadcasting (now CBS) in 1997, something that would not have been possible before the Act. Within about a year, the station had been consolidated with (former competitor) KOME/San Jose, losing our local morning show, much of the playlist’s independence, and eventually, listeners.
Like global warming’s relationship to hurricanes, media ownership rules are only part of a chaos theory of quality radio, and clearly there are exceptions: LIVE 105 itself attempted to recapture some of its progressive glory days between 2002 and 2006, and there are many commercial stations, some even owned by large companies, that do a good job. But at this point, even Republicans are starting to see how relaxed ownership rules put a chill on independent content: Trent Lott (R-Miss.) joined with Byron Dorgan (D-ND) today to introduce a bill that would block the FCC from easing the restrictions. But with satellite, non-commercial and good old intertube radio gaining listeners, one wonders if it isn’t already too little too late for the 92-plus region of your FM dial.