Monopolization of US Public Radio
Monopolization of US Public Radio
For TIAC Radio. Copyright © Shirley Sheppard 2002. All Rights Reserved
By Shirley Sheppard
Inside the Rotunda of the Library of Congress, President Clinton boasted that day in 1996 when he signed the Telecommunications Act. It was a historical moment, and to honor the occasion, the President used the same pen that President Eisenhower used in 1957 to sign the bill that created the interstate highway system.
President Clinton stated in his address after the signing, "This is a landmark legislation that fulfills my administration's promise to reform our telecommunications laws in a manner that leads to competition and private investment, promotes universal service and provides for flexible government regulation."
Vice President Al Gore hovered nearby as the President's seal made the elaborate bill a law; some aspects of the bill had been the subject of mild dispute for two decades. The Vice President pointed out how public regard was the key factor in the new law.
Following the signing a pomp and circumstance ceremony spotlighted upon an assemblage of legislators who proudly applauded the extensive package. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich announced that the act was a "jobs and knowledge" bill.
Changes were required in several areas. Long overdue was a great need to update the expansive communications industries and this bill was the first to do so since the 1930s. It permitted small Bell phone companies to filter their way into the long-distance business, promote competition, monitor Internet porn and deregulate cable rates. In fact, the Telecom Act had an impressive list that covered almost 200 pages of legislation. On the other hand, it released unrivaled deregulation in radio station ownership that would change the future of country music.
Buried indistinctly near the bottom of that long list was an article that didn't get much attention at all. President Clinton didn't even mentioned this item during his address of the bill signing. That obscure component, however, was to play the biggest role in the history of radio broadcasting in regard to what went out on the airways.
The new law lifted the limit of ownership of radio stations. An insignificant sounding statement, but the bold fact is this: the passing of this law permitted companies and individuals to step in and gobble up unlimited numbers of independent stations, thus creating one of the most unfair monopolies in American history. Before this passage, the number of radio stations an individual or company could own in the US was forty, and only two in a specific market.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is the governmental agency that has jurisdiction over public communication media, including radio, television, the Internet, telephone, satellite, etc.
Just a year or two before the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was made a law, the FCC relaxed, to a small degree, a few of their policies in radio... but only with extreme caution and close scrutiny to thwart monopolies from forming.
Then, without warning and without any input from the FCC or any public hearings a deregulation, that most radio broadcasters would have never dreamed about a couple of years before, was quietly and suddenly sneaked in the back door.
Clear Channel, a company out of San Antonio, Texas and owned by billionaire Sam Zell, started out with one station in 1972 and today owns an astounding 1,200 stations. They, along with two or three other conglomerates, dominate commercial radio as a result of the 1996 deregulation. And they have proven in four short years that, for the most part, they couldn't care less what the public wants to hear on radio.
Local independent owners, who did cater to the public and give them what they desired are, sadly, a thing of the past. There are still a few independent and college stations around that play the real stuff but, for the most part, they are history.
Along with the new owners came new ideas, methods and agendas. Marketing consultants, employed by station owners and their colossal advertising companies, have come up with a very biased and absurd method of determining airplay for music. Whereas fans used to call radio stations to request their favorite songs, the new procedure is to play bits of songs to a very selective few, known as "testers." Incredibly, this handful of people is the deciding factor as to what kind of music the general public will hear on radio.
Giant companies such as Proctor & Gamble, who via their ads keep radio afloat and on the air, play a very weighty role in what we hear on radio. Some experts feel that major advertisers exclusively control commercial radio, especially country radio (the most listened to format on the air) by selecting "testers" who have predisposed opinions; that is, people who will make selections to their liking.
The bottom line is, even though a well balanced variety of music, including traditional, bluegrass, and gospel, is played to these so-called "testers," it is not being played to the right people. They are, for the most part, 30-ish wives and mothers who are pop/rock fans, and are by no means music experts in any meaningful sense.
It is a ridiculous situation indeed when the people making the ultimate decisions about what kind of music will be played on the air don't know country music from a bunch of bag pipers. No wonder we are hearing a tuneless, meaningless racket that is not a semblance of country, and is even a pitiful example of pop. I'm also a great fan and follower of good pop music; this genre has suffered greatly too in the past few years.
Evolution happens and it is inevitable. The trend in the direction of pop actually began a couple of decades ago, but the recent ruling has created a total redefinition of a tradition and that is going a tad too far.
I also acknowledge that some may like the kind of music that is being aired on today's radio, but not the majority. A point can be argued here, however, that since no varieties are presented, no alternatives are offered to choose from.
The sound track from the movie Oh Brother, Where Art Thou went platinum in sales in 2002 - it outsold any other album for the year. It won five Grammy awards including top album of the year; an unprecedented accomplishment that even pales such icons as Bonnie Raitt.
The phenomenal success of this soundtrack was an eye-opener because the music was as 'rootsy' traditional and 'bluegrassy' as it gets. Teenagers especially loved it. Bluegrass icon Ralph Stanley made this now-famous statement when asked what he contributed to the spectacular sales of this music: "Kids had never heard this kind of music before. They had never been exposed to it, but once they heard it, they loved it."
Yet country radio blatantly ignored the music from the soundtrack of Oh Brother. In fact, they flat-out refused to play it. Some station managers were even brazen enough to send bold messages back to the record labels such as, "Just because you won an award or two, don't think we are going to start playing that kind of music."
Tangible sales in the millions documented well what the public wanted to hear, but big-shot major radio executives daringly got word back to record labels that they would play the kind of music they darn well pleased, regardless of what the public wants.
It is clear that this deregulation should never have taken place, but it did. The law has been passed. It will not be revoked. Two or three conglomerates, in alliance with even bigger advertising giants, now have total dominance over commercial radio. They are broadcasting exactly what they want to put out on the public airways with complete disregard to what the majority of the public wants.
The principal obligation of the FCC in regard to radio is to ensure that station owners are giving the public what they want to hear; that the public's interest is being served. Clearly this has not been happening in the past few years and raises a few questions in my mind.
Where is the FCC now?
Were their heads buried in the sand like an ostrich when the 'conspicuous absence of airplay' controversy regarding the Oh Brother soundtrack was in the headlines for weeks and on the evening news?
The FCC was very concerned a few years before this bill was signed that they watched over public radio like a hawk, after a very mild relaxing of policies to guarantee that monopolization would not happen. So why are they turning their heads now when the biggest takeover in the history of radio, not to mention total disregard of the law, is taking place?
Will the same demise happen to television? Has it gone too far to stop?
Shirley Sheppard Operations Manager, The Independent Artist Country Radio Network
P. O. Box 620345, Oviedo, FL 32762-0345,