"And the radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools tryin' to anaesthetize the way that you feel." -- Elvis Costello, "Radio Radio"
As a pre-teen growing up in Upstate New York, radio fed my hunger for music. Almost very week I'd get the handout featuring the local Top 40 list from WENE-AM to find out about the latest hits. I even befriended one of the station's disc jockeys, a tall fellow by the name of Sherwood whose on-air nickname was "The Jolly Green Giant." Whenever he'd be doing a remote broadcast around town, I'd hop on my bike and join him in the tiny trailer that served as his portable broadcast booth. No wonder I felt that WENE was "my" radio station.
Nowadays, any kid who'd like to meet the voices on the radio -- now called "air personalities," as they don't spin records anymore -- might have to pedal that bike hundreds of miles to do so. Since the 1996 Telecommunications Act relaxed radio station ownership rules, announcers in a centralized studio now host radio shows in scores of cities at once. Radio used to be the local diner or tavern. Now it is a fast food chain often serving questionable fare.
That is just one of the many disturbing results of radio deregulation. Beyond just the loss of the locality that was one of radio's great charms and advantages as a broadcast medium, the consequences also include massive layoffs, tighter music playlists, new forms of payola, ties to strong-arm tactics in the concert business, and even politically questionable uses of the radio airwaves.
The most egregious offender on all counts is Clear Channel, the San Antonio-based company that owns some 1,200 radio stations nationwide, concentrated in large metropolitan markets. The company also boasts a major national concert promotion division and even radio trade magazines.
In recent weeks, more than a dozen Clear Channel stations have sponsored pro-war "Rally For America!" gatherings. Radio was once required by the Fairness Doctrine to present politically balanced broadcasts. The medium now shows increasingly dangerous signs of becoming a tool for limited viewpoints, as even a quick and casual listen to talk radio attests.
Although Clear Channel denies any centralized policy instigating or supporting such events, the company's political associations give one pause. One of the architects and financiers of Clear Channel's radio empire is Dallas investment banker Thomas Hicks, a Bush associate and supporter.
The Federal Communications Commission was started as an agency to regulate the commercial use of a national resource -- the broadcast airwaves. Since deregulation, it has more become a facilitator for the capitalist exploitation of broadcasting in direct opposition to the public welfare.
The FCC is now considering further deregulation that could have an even more chilling effect on the diversity of viewpoints being broadcast to Americans. The fact that this is happening while the nation is in wartime mode and dissent is being frequently tagged as un-American if not seditious makes this fact even more troubling.
This time, television is the focus. Among the rules that look likely to fall, despite strong opposition at hearings around the country, are those that limit one broadcast company from owning enough stations to reach 35% of the national television-viewing households and restrictions against companies owning a broadcast station and newspaper in the same market.
Under Chairman Michael Powell (son of Secretary of State Colin Powell), the FCC and its Republican majority looks likely to serve the money masters rather than the people, and take the next scary steps in media deregulation. If they do so, Americans will surely lose much more diversity of media voices and move that much closer to having its broadcast media become easily co-opted for propaganda and political and social control.
They won't be our radio or TV or newspapers, but their media. And who will they be? Not you and me, I imagine.
Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.