Break Up Media Giants

After the National Guard killed four antiwar demonstrators at Kent State University in Ohio in 1970, radio stations across the country helped to make "Ohio" by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young not only an anti-war anthem but also a hit. Now, with playlists dictated by Corporate Central, Brent Staples wrote in the New York Times Feb. 20, "A comparable song about George W. Bush's rush to war in Iraq would have no chance at all today."

There are still plenty of people upset by Bush's plans for war, as the Feb. 15 rallies showed across the country, but independent radio stations that could serve as their sounding board have all but vanished as the Telecommunications Act of 1996 allowed media corporations to buy hundreds of radio stations. The new rules were supposed to increase diversity but they have had the opposite effect. Radio was the test case and the "free market" has flunked. A few corporations now control 80% of the listenership in some major markets. In many cases they dictate song playlists from their corporate headquarters. Labor-intensive news departments have been jettisoned for cheaper and more profitable music or talk radio formats. Liberals have become scarce and populists who question the corporate role in politics and society are virtually nonexistent on the commercial airwaves.

Clear Channel Communications owns 1,225 radio stations, making it the largest chain in the country. It has picked up 55 stations since September 2001, when the behemoth "asked" its then-1,170 radio stations nationwide to avoid playing 150 songs rather than risk offending its 110 million listeners in the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The troublesome songs ranged from the Gap Band's "You Dropped a Bomb on Me" and Soundgarden's "Blow Up the Outside World" to "Ticket to Ride" by the Beatles, "On Broadway" by the Drifters and "Bennie and the Jets" by Elton John. As the Bush administration prepares for war in Iraq, Lynette Holloway reported in the Feb. 24 New York Times, several program directors are planning to run patriotic music if the US goes to war. Clear Channel's music stations were prepared to break for news twice an hour if necessary.

The dwindling of local radio stations is a bipartisan concern. Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., told National Journal of the plight when a freight train carrying anhydrous ammonia derailed, releasing a deadly cloud over the city of Minot. Police tried to contact the six stations owned by Clear Channel in Minot to notify listeners, but no one answered the phone at the stations for an hour and a half. In the meantime, 300 people were hospitalized, some partially blinded by the ammonia, and pets and livestock were killed.

The FCC is considering relaxing the rules to allow a similar consolidation of TV stations and cross-ownership of radio and TV stations and newspapers to create virtual monopolies on news in a single market. Michael Powell, chairman of the FCC, is pushing more deregulation but Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, called a hearing in January on Wisconsin Sen. Russell Feingold's Competition in Radio and Concert Industries Act. The bill would require close scrutiny of mergers that could put the majority of the country's radio stations in a single corporation's hands. It also would address complaints that some chains, such as Clear Channel, threaten to curtail airplay for artists who refuse to tour with the company's concert division. Musician Don Henley testified that artists are "shackled by the anti-competitive practices of the conglomerates." Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings, D-S.C., the committee's ranking Democrat, also complained, "Radio consolidation has contributed to a 34% decline in the number of owners, a 90% rise in the cost of advertising rates, [and] a rise in indecent broadcasts. If ever there were a cautionary tale, this is it." [See "Clear Channel's big, stinking deregulation mess," by Eric Boehlert, Salon.com, Feb. 19, part of his excellent series on "The Media Borg."]

McCain also got a taste of talk radio abuse after Rush Limbaugh rushed to the aid of George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential primaries following McCain's surprising 19-point victory in New Hampshire. Limbaugh attacked McCain on the air for weeks on end, ridiculing the senator's integrity and credentials, Boehlert noted. During the hearing Clear Channel founder and CEO Lowry Mays came in for some tough questioning from McCain on his future acquisition plans.

Congress may not be able to stop a relaxation of ownership rules for TV stations, since the Telecommunications Act leaves it up to the FCC, but Congress can send signals that commissioners would be wise to heed. The two Democrats on the five-member FCC have been opposed to relaxing the ownership rules, so the fate of independent TV may depend on Republican Kevin Martin, who has staked out a much more cautious approach to cross-ownership than Powell.

Martin sided with the two Democrats Feb. 20 to defeat Powell's high-profile attempt to free the US regional telephone companies from state regulations. By a 3-2 vote, the FCC freed the regional Bells from having to lease high-speed data lines to competitors at discounted rates, which could raise prices for broadband service, particularly in rural areas. But the panel defeated Powell's proposal to free the companies from regulation of their phone lines as well.

Congress and the FCC should maintain the current rule that a single media company may not own a newspaper and a TV station in the same market (except perhaps for a few grandfathered cases now in existence). The government should require each radio and TV station to maintain local news and public affairs programming. It also should restore the Fairness Doctrine to allow alternative views to be aired on each station.

Finally, Congress should levy a tax of 10% on broadcast commercials to pay for public financing of federal political campaigns to reduce the need of political candidates to seek bribes from corporate lobbyists. Such a tax would generate nearly $5 billion, based on 2001 ad sales. Those revenues also would allow expansion of public broadcasting services. For too long, radio and TV stations have been receiving the benefit of public airwaves without compensation.

Public financing for presidential campaigns needs the money now, being in the worst financial shape in its 28-year history. Leading Democratic candidates are tempted to forgo it in the 2004 elections. Those who accept the matching funds agree to abide by state and overall spending limits that haven't kept up with the cost of campaigning. The Federal Election Commission estimates a need for $36 million, but only $4.6 million is projected to be available from the checkoff on federal income tax returns. Bush is expected to opt out of the system for the primary, as he did in 2000, in order to raise and spend unlimited amounts. In 2000, Bush raised and spent $100 million for his primary campaign. That dwarfed the fundraising of his nearest GOP rival, John McCain, and was more than double the amount available in the primaries to his leading Democratic opponent, Al Gore, both of whom accepted matching funds. As an incumbent president without GOP opposition, Bush is expected to raise $150 million or more for the primaries in 2004. He might become the first candidate since the system was created to forgo public funds in the general election. [For more on public financing of elections see www.democracy21.org, www.publicampaign.org and www.commoncause.org.]

A tax on broadcast commercials would make publicly financed presidential campaigns competitive again and allow clean elections in congressional races as well. Such a bill is unimaginable in the current Congress with the current administration, of course. Feingold's modest bill already strains the imagination. But democracy advocates had better start imagining ways to eliminate the corporate stranglehold on political financing and the media. [For more on media diversity see the Media Access Project (www.mediaaccess.org), Center for Digital Democracy (www.democraticmedia.org) and Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (www.fair.org).] -- JMC

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