Heard any good radio lately? Heard any local radio lately? If so, send them a check. Community radio, one of the true gems of communication, is under attack. The FCC, chaired by Michael Powell, son of Colin, is going to "explore" them.
We should recognize the signs by now, signs as old as Lewis and Clark's exploration of the West and as new as the USDA organic standards. When the government explores something, that something is in trouble.
First, they'll write a report praising community radio. Then, they'll build some forts -- make that "write some standards." Then, they'll use the standards to manipulate and finally steal community radio.
Anyone who thinks the Internet will replace mass media can stop reading now because you won't agree that the air waves are valuable and owned by the public.
On the other hand, if you believe that radio is important, perhaps only because it comes to you free, bearing entertainment that's occasionally irresistible and meaningful, it's time to figure out who's in charge. And, it turns out, who's in charge comes from an increasingly small pool.
Fifty years ago, every community had local radio stations. Spanish radio, Polish radio, Yiddish radio, farm radio, each genre was connected to its own community. If you were driving in unfamiliar territory the announcements sounded like jibberish -- hog bellies? badminton clubs? -- but they meant something to listeners in their communities.
Some of the local stations were also connected to networks for national and international feeds -- ah! there's the rub! From networks to consolidation!
Thirty years ago, 50 companies controlled most of the media in the United States -- radio, TV, newspapers, magazines. According to David Barsamian in The Decline and Fall of Public Broadcasting, by 1987 ownership had dwindled to 28 companies. Five years later, there were 14. Today, there are five companies controlling most of what comes over the air waves.
A spin of the dial discovers more than five stations, because one company can own stations in several markets. Talk radio, country, pop, rap and jazz may all be owned by the same corporation, with the same corporate buddies advertising on each one, the ads tweaked to appeal to each audience.
New FCC regulations were announced this past summer that would have allowed even more consolidation but, much to Michael Powell's surprise, outrage came from several directions. Citizens objected on the grounds that we need a diverse ownership -- ownership increasingly is tied to corporations, with coverage coming from that centrist to right-wing point of view.
Industry leaders, however, don't object to more consolidation. According to the Sept. 2 Wall Street Journal, CBS (owned by Viacom), NBC (owned by GE) and Fox (owned by News Corp.) are launching a TV campaign to convince Americans that regulations against consolidation "get between me and my TV." Disney's ABC will run the ads, too. These Big Four believe that opening the door to more consolidation, including the combination of all media -- TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, Internet, billboards -- means more profit, and the heck with consumer choice.
So Powell is launching his voyage of discovery and the 160 or so independent community radio stations must be vigilant and even united. It won't be easy. Community radio is marked by diversity, not unity.
And, the open nature of community radio means that highjackers can weasel in and make trouble from inside. In 2002, independent network Pacifica was stolen by conservative board members who fired key journalists, changed the locks and hired armed guards. A major demonstration and national support reversed the coup. While the broadcasting equipment was off limits to the staff of Democracy Now!, hosted by Amy Goodman, they set up a station "in exile" and managed to stay on the air, giving a voice to anti-war demonstrators and powerless folks around the world.
Community stations are usually staffed by one or two professionals and a raft of volunteers, so the offerings are unpredictable. To give listeners consistency, some stations fall back on national programming, usually from National Public Radio or Public Radio International, reducing the hours of local stuff. NPR, by the way, covers the same issues as the Wall Street Journal. Some NPR hosts are audibly upset and cut off call-in listeners with populist or progressive views.
NPR/PRI programs are expensive. A station manager who applied the NPR/PRI pattern to mid-Missouri's KOPN 89.5 FM alienated volunteers and left the station $100,000 in debt. Dayton, Ohio station WYSO 91.3 FM is facing the same grim problem.
In community radio, the best programs attract audiences by making a connection. KOPN airs a diverse mix of programs -- farm issues, Spanish news, women's issues, ragtime, jazz, Jewish music, Christian music, world music, Arab music, Grateful Dead, power pop -- whatever that is! -- and so forth. It takes a while to build an audience for a show, but people tune in for programs that mean something to them.
Local programming makes connections that have to do with history and culture, downtowns, rural landscapes, and the future of our communities. Missouri's rivers and hills aren't the same as Dayton's, so our local programming doesn't deal with the issues covered in Dayton's local programming.
Community station members endlessly debate how to allocate the precious hours of local shows. The debate's part of the community, too, and one of the lost proficiencies of a democracy.
We must keep it alive.
Margot McMillen farms and teaches English in central Missouri and hosts a weekly radio program covering agriculture, food and resource issues on KOPN 89.5 FM in Columbia, Mo.