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Talk Back to Your Radio

The widespread disappointment with corporate radio is turning into legal challenges led by young organizers, musicians and DJs.
 
 
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Why Can't I Turn Off the Radio? So says the refrain of a popular song by Ne-Yo, currently on heavy rotation on hip-hop stations across the country. Many people may be asking themselves this same question as media giant Clear Channel homogenizes playlists, disregards local communities and makes life unbearably monotonous for people without iPods. If you are wondering how and why all radio stations started to sound the same, look at the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

The act allowed corporations like Clear Channel to own up to eight radio stations in each local market and removed any restrictions on the number of stations a corporation could own nationwide. Since 1996, Clear Channel went from owning 40 to 1200 radio stations.

With close to 95 percent of Americans listening to the radio, the messages and messengers stations choose to carry have an excessive impact on the communities. Radio is cheaper to access than television or the internet and it travels across racial and class boundaries, providing a common space. However, as media consolidation advances across the country, stations are increasingly focusing on profit, forgetting their responsibility to serve local communities in exchange for using the free airwaves -- a spectrum that belongs to the public.

But what does one do when the radio becomes unbearable? Usually, individuals have little recourse but to turn it off. In addition, every eight years radio and television stations are required to renew their licenses, and communities have a unique opportunity to challenge the station's right to exist. The FCC requires radio and television stations to prove that they have been accessible to civilians, responded to emergencies adequately and served the needs of local communities defined in the rather vague terms by the FCC as "accessibility, necessity and public interest."

According to Malkia Cyril, director of Oakland-based Youth Media Council (YMC), the last of these three things is most difficult to prove. But in a recent action by YMC, two local Bay Area Clear Channel affiliates were challenged with petitions to deny future licensing on the grounds that stations KMEL and KYLD did not serve their local communities and did not provide adequate access to their public records.

Systematically monitoring the radio, YMC found that local artists were not getting airtime, programming consisted of repeated top 40 hits, and shock jocks (a-la Howard Stern gone mad) staged outrageous stunts causing members of the community to be publicly humiliated. YMC recorded instances of DJs creating states of emergency on the Bay Bridge and pranks that sent DJs to jail for the level of danger they caused. One minor was solicited by the radio station and asked to strip naked and cover herself with bumper stickers. Onother woman sued KYLD after a DJ called her home and accused her of abusing her daughter. Patrons of a restaurant were held hostage by KYLD DJs, who pretended to be armed and ready to kill. Another mother received a call from a KYLD DJ who pretended to be a school district administrator. The DJ told the mother that her son had been caught "peddling dope," and only after the woman broke down and cried did the DJ reveal that he was from KYLD and that he was just "kidding."

Behind this commercially crass and tasteless behavior was Clear Channel, a national media giant that "like an octopus with eight arms" (to quote Malkia) operated centrally and took little responsibility on the local level. While these incidents represent only a fraction of Clear Channel's infractions, the licensing agreement only examines the relationship between stations and local communities. This means that while Clear Channel affiliates have committed far more misdeeds than the aforementioned, due to FCC regulations it is unlikely Clear Channel will ever be penalized as a whole.

According to Michael Wagner of the FCC Media Bureau Audio Division, approximately one percent of stations face petitions to deny licensing during the renewal process. Of all the stations that have been challenged so far this year, none have lost their licenses. In fact, the most recent case of license revocation Wagner could cite involved a group of stations in Missouri that were owned by Michael Rice, a convicted child molester who also lied to the FCC.

Clear Channel may eventually loose a license in a specific market where it forgets to tell the public about a tornado, but even in this case it is more likely it will be fined. Wagner used the expression "slap on the wrist" to describe what stations usually face in terms of censure.

The misdeeds of Clear Channel would not be quite as decimating if everyone had equal access to the public airwaves. In 1980, students and nonprofit organizations could get a Class D license that allowed them to operate a station of 10 watts or less. Though obtaining a license to broadcast only costs about $550 today, in order to get the license you have to prove to the FCC that you have the infrastructure to operate a station. This often means that the applicant has to have thousands of dollars worth of equipment, the service of engineers, and a team of lawyers for the enormous amount of paper work. It is also rare that there is even space on the band for new stations -- and if there is -- you will be competing against many equally qualified applicants.

Faced with a daunting application process, low power pirate radio stations circumvent FCC laws and use the public airwaves to broadcast illegally. Though owners and operators of pirate radio stations often serve their communities in more meaningful ways than their corporate counterparts, they are often subjected to fines and penalties.

Meanwhile, corporate stations with licenses near urban areas cater to their urban listeners, often leaving their suburban audiences out when reporting local news, traffic or disaster information. Not only is a lack of locally based programming unfair to listeners outside of urban areas, it is also culturally hazardous to those within them. Urban stereotyping occurs when areas that previously only listened to country music are forced to listen to fake Ebonics. For listeners who have little to no personal experience living in cities with diverse populations, the radio is often the beginning and ending of their "urban" experience.

At a recent town hall meeting sponsored by YMC in February, Davey D, a former KMEL DJ, spoke of the commodification of hip-hop and urban music. He said that in order to drive up ratings, at certain stations white DJs assumed Hispanic last names, mimicked Ebonics and used urban catchphrases to sound like their listeners in urban areas.

Language has its own form of street cred on the airwaves where everyone is invisible, but in taking language from the mouth of the people, corporations like Clear Channel end up erasing the people they claim to represent. Clear Channel often turns hip-hop into a farce by promoting records that are demeaning to women and minorities.

In rural areas, large corporate radio stations often use remote DJs and prerecorded playlists to achieve the "urban" sound. This causes a shortage in staff members undermining emergency reports. Many stations in rural areas have also eliminated local artists from their playlists entirely, creating a cultural void in areas where community building is more difficult due to distance.

I went to college in a semirural area of upstate New York. The radio stations I was able to find gave news and traffic reports for the larger city of Poughkeepsie, rarely mentioning news and events in my small area, Annandale-on-Hudson. While I do not enjoy these aspects of homogenization, I must confess I enjoy listening to nationwide shows, and sometimes I enjoy pointless shows like Delilah, which can be heard across the entire country. Maybe this is why 95 percent of Americans listen to the radio -- maybe we like the idea that no matter how far you drive across the United States, when the static on your car radio clears, you are still in the same place.

Oakland teenagers I spoke with at the YMC panel claimed to like KYLD and KMEL, the Clear Channel affiliates being petitioned by YMC. Eighteen-year-old Shaquia said she listens to KMEL "all day, every day." She noted, "They play music we listen to anyway." Bird, a teenage rapper from Oakland said she listens to KMEL often but wishes KMEL played more local artists and more female artists like herself. "We're supporting them, but they don't support us," she commented of KMEL. Both Shaquia and Bird disliked hearing the word "bitch" on the radio, and the problem with total homogeneity is that there is no other choice. People who want to listen to hip-hop and don't want to hear songs that are degrading are going to have little choice but to turn off the radio.

Paul Porter worked as a music programmer at BET for many years until one day a little girl asked him why he was playing a song by Rah Digga with the lyrics "beat that bitch with a bat." "That was one time I did not bop my head, and I said, 'Man I am a ho,'" Porter confessed at the same panel held by YMC. Porter began to question what he was doing and, after being fired from his job for calling attention to the questionable programming choices at BET, he co-founded an organization called Industry Ears to monitor radio programming.

Porter isn't the only one who no longer bops his head when listening to the radio. Those called "trendsetters" by marketers -- the young listeners most likely to lead their peers -- increasingly choose internet to get their music and information. New bands publicize themselves with sites like MySpace.com and on music blogs like Pitch Fork or download aggregators like the Hype Machine. Pop culture has changed, and many trendsetters have opted out of it completely as the same tracks get played over and over again not because they are good, but because labels pay DJs to play certain records.

As Clear Channel buys up more and more stations, gets its news from questionable sources and accepts bribes to play records, stations like KYLD and KMEL seem less and less likely to remain "the people's stations." Trendsetters have means of circumventing the Clear Channel machine, escaping the system via iPod or pirate radio, but most people remain trapped within the AM or FM bandwidth.

There are a few restrictions placed in the way of giants like Clear Channel, but these regulations do not work unless community members are aware of them and demand they be upheld. YMC knocked on doors, asking community members for their opinions about KMEL and KYLD; it held town hall meetings and tried to speak to station administrators. YMC monitored the airwaves extensively and documented what it heard, then partnered with other community organizations to create their petition. While Malkia doubts the petition will cause either station to loose its license, she believes the challenge is the first step in a long process. At YMC's recent town hall meeting she was hopeful. Speaking with great poise and passion, Malkia addressed a crowd of over 100 community members, "Each one of us has the power to take our culture back."

Elizabeth Daley is an editorial intern of WireTap.