Incredibly, Clear Channel criticized Monday’s ruling because the FCC announced that it intended to take some mild oversight steps with regard to radio. Then, too, Clear Channel went to great lengths to make sure its stations were on board with the war in Iraq, even going so far as to organize pro-war rallies. Perhaps the company’s executives believe that the Bush administration is showing insufficient gratitude.
It’s not just news that gets short shrift — culture suffers as well. Donna Halper, a radio consultant and Emerson College journalism professor, saw what happened to radio firsthand. In 1974, she was music director at WMMS, in Cleveland, when she received a record in a plain brown envelope. It was by an unknown band called Rush. She put the record on the air — and thus gave a huge boost to a band that has proved to be both highly popular and long-lived.
"If I were a music director doing my job today, I couldn’t do what I did in 1974," Halper told me. "I couldn’t run down to the disc jockey on the air and say, ‘Hey, I just heard this great new band, we’ve got to put them on the air.’" Increasingly, she observes, radio stations in small and medium-size markets — the kinds of places where music promoters used to be able to break new acts — are programmed out of headquarters many hundreds of miles away.
This kind of gigantism can take a more malignant turn as well. Last week, ABC’s Nightline — in a segment for which Halper was interviewed — reported that Cumulus, the second-largest radio chain (after Clear Channel), banned the Dixie Chicks from all its 42 country stations after lead singer Natalie Maines dissed George W. Bush. Now, you could argue that that was Cumulus’s right, or that it might even have been a good business decision. But one company taking a group off 42 stations is considerably different from 42 separate radio-station owners making the same decision.
After all, it is nearly unimaginable that 42 different individuals would make that same decision. Which is, after all, the whole point about what’s wrong with media consolidation.
AS MICHAEL POWELL accurately notes, consolidation is not taking place in a vacuum. For one thing, in recent years the increasingly conservative federal court system has been knocking down various media regulations, meaning that some loosening of the rules was inevitable. For another, there are many more media outlets than ever before — hundreds of thousands of Web sites, satellite television, and a cable universe that won’t stop expanding until it’s up against the current technological limit of 500 channels.
The problem with Powell’s first argument, though, is that he appears far too eager to do the media conglomerates’ bidding rather than test the limits of the courts’ forbearance. Powell has encouraged a shockingly cozy relationship with the industry. According to a recent study by the Center for Public Integrity, "FCC officials have taken 2,500 trips costing nearly $2.8 million over the past eight years, most of it from the telecommunications and broadcast industries the agency regulates." Top destinations: Las Vegas, New Orleans, and New York.
The problem with the second argument is that, though there are more broadcast and cable outlets than ever before, the majority of them are owned by five huge companies: AOL Time Warner, Viacom/CBS, General Electric/NBC, Disney/ABC, and Murdoch’s News Corporation. Studies show, in fact, that those companies control some 75 percent of the prime-time audience.
To be sure, the notion that big-is-bad is too complicated to be correct in all cases. Local media activist Steve Provizer, the founder of Allston-Brighton Free Radio and the Citizens Media Corps, notes that a study earlier this year by the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that TV stations owned by newspaper companies (under "grandfathering" arrangements) tend to produce higher-quality newscasts than other stations. He also observes that WHDH-TV (Channel 7), an independently owned operation (there is a sister station in Miami), introduced the sort of whiz-bang graphics and quick hits that dragged down local news throughout Greater Boston, with the chain-owned stations emulating at least some of Channel 7’s style in a desperate bid to retain audience share.
"You can throw around the big terms: democracy, civic discourse. But I’m at the point where I’ve been doing this a long time, and people’s real choices have got to change," Provizer says. "Will people choose their media on the basis of the fact that it’s an independent rather than a group owner? They never have." He adds: "In my own mind, I feel like community and alternative media have got to do some real significant work if they’re going to have any impact on people’s media habits."
These days, Provizer is involved in a project called the Commonwealth Broadband Collaborative (www.cbcmedia.net), which is aimed at producing high-quality, community-based programming for public-access cable TV and the Internet.
Provizer is right: independent owners aren’t always better than corporate chains, and community-based media do no good if people aren’t paying attention. Still, there are limits to the amount of damage a bad independent owner can do. The FCC’s stated goals of localism, diversity, and competition are far better served by a multiplicity of owners than they are by a handful of corporate titans controlling most of what we see, hear, and read.
So what’s next? The new FCC rules won’t actually take effect until fall at the earliest. There’s been considerable speculation about what might happen in Boston, but the truth is that no one knows. The New York Times Company, which owns the Boston Globe and the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, also owns TV stations, and editorialized in favor of dropping the cross-ownership ban. Tribune Company, which owns WLVI-TV (Channel 56), has made it clear that it would like to gobble up TV stations in cities where it already does business. Boston Herald publisher Pat Purcell has publicly stated that he would like to buy a radio station. He might also find a way to do business with his old mentor, Rupert Murdoch, who owns WFXT-TV (Channel 25).
Then, too, there is a possibility — slight though it may be — that Congress will seek to prevent some or all of the FCC changes from taking effect. David Moulton, a spokesman for Representative Ed Markey (D-Malden), a key opponent of deregulation, says the congressman might file legislation to retain the 35 percent national-audience cap. Markey himself said in a statement that "all segments of the population will enjoy fewer and fewer options for independent news and information" as a result of the FCC decision.
Most of the Democratic presidential candidates, including Senator John Kerry, denounced the FCC decision. Senator Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), a national leader in the fight against deregulation, said in a written statement that Monday’s action would "limit freedom of expression and curtail discourse, which are the very tenets of freedom and democracy our nation is built on." Senator Russ Feingold (D-Wisconsin), an outspoken critic of the way Clear Channel muscles musicians with its monopolies in radio and concert promotion, announced that he was considering various legislative options as well. And these progressives have been joined by such conservative Republicans as Senators Trent Lott of Mississippi and Ted Stevens of Alaska.
LIKE ELI PARISER and Jeff Chester, University of Illinois media scholar Robert McChesney believes the coalition that formed around the FCC’s latest deregulatory steps may represent a real opportunity for those who believe in a decentralized, democratic media. McChesney is involved in a new organization, Free Press (www.mediareform.net), based in Northampton, that is attempting to organize around issues related to media concentration and ownership.
"What we’ve seen this time is an extraordinary amount of activism and interest in this issue. We’ve had nothing like this in the last 50 or 100 years that’s even remotely comparable," says McChesney. "This is not the last battle in a war that is now lost. This is the first battle in a war that is just beginning."
Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]phx.com. Read his daily Media Log at BostonPhoenix.com