Who Owns the Radio Airwaves?

Radio. You can't see it, taste it, or hold it in your hands, yet it's been a part of your life -- at times, probably a very important part -- ever since you can remember.Radio is around most of us nearly every day. It's in our cars, helping us get to work and back; at home, waking us in the morning or relaxing us at night; at our jobs, where we may not even hear it -- until someone happens to turn it off. At its worst, radio is boring, irrelevant, irritating: a medium that seems to be aimed at no one in particular. But at its best, radio seems to speak to you, and you alone.Radio can entertain or inform; can amuse or provoke; can be a valuable distraction, or an invaluable companion. That little box of electronics holds a kind of power that can't be measured in watts. Because at its best, radio can make you feel.There are some 10,000 commercial radio stations in the United States, each of them hoping to make that emotional connection with you. They fill the airwaves 24 hours a day: with news and sports and weather; with hard information and opinionated rumor; with high culture and low comedy; with nearly every kind of music there is, mixed in every conceivable way; and with commercials, of course, -- lots and lots of commercials.There are non-commercial stations, too, operated by colleges and municipalities and not-for-profit foundations, funded by government subsidies and private grants and listener contributions. Their programming spectrum, broader than the commercial outlets', ranges from brilliant to obscure, but all of it adds even more choices to the radio dial. Which raises a question: With so many possibilities for radio listening, why do so many people find the medium lacking?Why can't stations seem to please their listeners, to sustain their attention and loyalty, instead of simply passing them back and forth between each other, or just driving them to the "off" button altogether? In other words, why isn't radio better? More to the point, who really owns the airwaves?Is it the station owners, who hold broadcasting licenses?The radio networks and record companies, who supply most of the programming? How about the advertisers, who pay all the bills? Or is it the FCC, which purportedly regulates the whole thing?Believe it or not (and these days, it does seem a bit unbelievable) you do. In theory at least, you own the airwaves. A little history to explain how that came to be -- and why the notion seems so preposterous now.Radio was born in the last years of the 19th century, as was the automobile. Both grew up slowly, and neither really hit their strides until the 1920s. They had a lot in common.Both were novelties, suspicious bits of technology which only a few special people could visualize a future for. Not unlike the early computer hackers of our own time, the first "automakers" and the first "broadcasters" were just hobbyists.They were private individuals fooling around with primitive equipment, laughed at if they were noticed at all. The first radio receivers were homemade crystal sets (you can still buy one) and the first broadcasts were "experimental" -- you put something on the air, and hoped someone heard it. The first radio program (as such) was a 1906 Christmas Eve broadcast from Brant Rock, Massachusetts. A man named Reginald Aubrey Fessenden played the violin, gave a short speech, quoted the Bible, and then played a phonograph record -- a show that was unfortunately enjoyed only by ships within a five-mile radius. At the same time, cars began appearing on the nation's roads, bringing with it a new concept -- traffic. This development would soon spawn signs, stoplights, and other controls to keep America's new drivers from running into each other. Radio signals were about to run into each other, too. With favorable atmospheric conditions, Mr. Fessenden's follow-up program in 1906 was picked up all the way in the West Indies.With no limits on broadcast power, and frequencies being chosen haphazardly, the nation's airwaves would soon be like a busy downtown intersection with no stoplights. So, in 1922, Secretary of Commerce (and later, President) Herbert Hoover called a Washington Radio Conference to direct traffic among the growing number of broadcasters. And in 1927, the same year Henry Ford watched his fifteenth million Model T roll off the line, Congress passed the Federal Radio Act.Its purpose was to license stations "in the public interest, convenience, or necessity," and to create an agency that eventually became the Federal Communications Commission, or FCC.The idea was that the public owned the airwaves.It's interesting that the earliest proponents of radio didn't envision it as a commercial medium. "It is inconceivable, said Hoover in 1922, "that we should allow so great a possibility for service to be drowned in advertising chatter." Six months later, WEAF in New York aired a ten-minute pitch for apartments in Queens, and that was that. Radio as a business was on its way.In the 1920s, radio grew from a hobby to a national obsession. The first networks (CBS and NBC), the first hit show (Amos 'n' Andy), the first World Series broadcast, the first Presidential election returns. And the first station to go on the air west of the Mississippi, WOC in Davenport. By the end of the decade, sales of radio sets and parts approached one billion dollars -- at a time when a new Ford cost $500.The 1930s brought the Great Depression -- a bad time for most Americans, but a very good time for radio. It was a decade that came to be known as radio's Golden Age.WIth one in four people out of work, popular entertainment meant radio, which was free. Hooper and Crossley developed audience-measurement systems (the first ratings), and dozens of radio stars became household names -- not the least of which was President Franklin Roosevelt, the first politician to exploit the one-on-one power of a microphone. The 1940s brought World War II, and radio became an instant news medium, bringing the war it into America's living rooms. For the first time, people didn't have to read what was going on around the world; they could hear it for themselves.It had taken almost 50 years, but radio was finally king. And then, just as it had reached that pinnacle, everything changed. Radio hit a wall. It was called TV.Television had been in development almost as long as radio (there were primitive color broadcasts as early as the 1930s), but the war had put TV on hold, and it was almost 1950 before television really got rolling. When it did, radio's stars jumped to the new medium, and so did its audience. Flush with cash in a booming post-war economy, they bought TV sets by the millions, and settled down on the couch to watch.By 1952, Robert Sarnoff, president of NBC (and son of the man who founded radio's first network) said: "Radio is dead." Nearly 50 years later, that announcement seems laughable.But in fact, radio was dead. And understanding the factors that brought it back to life -- the changes which reinvented it as a new, viable medium -- is the key to understanding radio today. Finding a New Audiencewas the first challenge. The old radio (and the new television) was a mass medium, with programming designed for, and aimed at, everyone. But in the 50s, a new kind of music appeared, a brash-sounding offshoot of black R&B. A Cleveland disc jockey named Alan Freed called it rock 'n' roll.Adults couldn't stand it, but teenagers couldn't get enough -- and they turned on their radios when stations started playing it late at night. For the first time, a medium showed it could succeed by zeroing in on a specific group.Today, the concept is called target marketing. Mass media have been replaced by alternative newspapers, special-interest magazines, and hundreds of micro-targeted cable channels. each serving a tiny slice of the consumer spectrum, focusing on a particular age group or lifestyle. But radio did it first. Other formats followed, and each splintered into increasingly segmented mixes: oldies, classic rock, alternative, adult contemporary, on and on. Broadcasting became narrow-casting.Tightening the FocusBut within each format, the choices got fewer. This supposedly started when a man walked into a bar and noticed that its jukebox was a real profit center. People didn't seem to care about the limited selection; they were shoveling in quarters just to hear the same songs over and over again. It gave him an idea: Why not do the same thing on radio -- pick out a few favorite records, and repeat them all day long?It was the beginning of Top 40, a programming strategy that turned stations into immensely profitable, over-the-air jukeboxes -- and today generates radio's single biggest complaint.Reinventing the TechnologyStarting around 1970, radio was again reshaped, by two technological advancements which had been brewing for years. The first was FM, a new, second radio dial, with increased fidelity, the potential for stereo, and an "underground" feel that made AM seem stodgy and unhip. But the end of the decade, the cutting-edge programming had moved to FM, taking radio's younger listeners with it. The second was automation, a mix of computerized machinery and satellite technology that allowed stations to operate with just a handful of local employees. Music, news, talk shows -- it could all be beamed from New York or Los Angeles -- and all the local owner had to do was sell advertising time.That was particularly important for AM operators, who found themselves with a shrinking audience. Rush Limbaugh will tell you that he saved AM radio from extinction -- and he may be right.Franchising the Medium This was part of an even larger trend, in which radio stations around the country started to sound alike. Hamburgers at a McDonald's in Bangor or Boise are identical, and radio stations within a given format became similarly standardized, airing the same programming, using the same voices, running the same promotions.Networks, radio consultants, and record companies helped local stations duplicate each others' success by getting them to do the same things.This trend has continued in radio for the same reasons that McDonald's and other franchises replaced yesterday's independent restaurants: standardization is faster, easier, and cheaper.Deregulating RadioThe last big change to shape radio is a recent one, and may be its biggest yet. It's a development talked about incessantly by everyone who works in radio, and one already having an impact on everyone who listens: deregulation.Like airlines, banking, and a host of other industries that used to be tightly controlled by the Federal Government, the broadcasting industry is now realigning itself in the wake of recent legislation which loosened the reins.For radio, the biggest change came in the 90s, when corporations -- formerly limited to owning a just handful of stations each -- were given the green light to buy as many as they wished. This started an incredible frenzy of acquisition, resulting in a few huge companies now owning the bulk of America's radio stations -- a consolidation which isn't over yet.What does deregulation mean? With reduced competition, one expects higher advertising rates, but that hasn't happened (yet), and market forces are still at work to keep everybody honest.Syndicated programming, from Dr. Laura to Howard Stern, continues to replace local hosts, but ratings show that people often prefer the national shows anyway.Music continues to be tightly formatted (and local artists rarely get airplay until they're within striking distance of being national acts) but there are still a lot of choices on the dial, even if they're provided by fewer broadcasters. It's true that "local" radio isn't very local anymore, but it's also true that -- for good or bad -- radio remains the same, even as it changes. Real change is up to its listeners.Sidebar OneRadio: A Brief Owner's ManualWith all the evolutions radio has gone through since Marconi first bounced a signal through the air in 1895, it's still the people's medium -- legally, since the "public ownership" idea (however diluted) still remains in effect -- and literally, since the financial success of those who run it still depends on those of us who listen to it. The key words are ratings and revenue, and here's what you can do: Be An Informed ListenerKnow what you're listening to, and why. Learn to identify stations' call letters, formats, and their positions on the dial. One of these days, a ratings diary may come your way, and your vote will count for thousands of people.Be An Active ListenerSample the dial (AM and FM) continually. There's a lot there, and it changes all the time. Don't let complacency give stations a free ride; make them satisfy you, or move on. Once again, their ratings may catch up with your tastes. And tell your friends; word of mouth has a real effect. Talk Back Believe it or not, programmers actually pay attention to listeners' suggestions and complaints -- if they seem to make sense and can be used for the station's benefit. Some stations even assemble representative listeners into a "focus group" to discuss programming. So, if something's on your mind, drop them a letter, e-mail, or a short phone call. It might work.Get to the AdvertisersIf you like what a station does, patronize their sponsors -- it's the ultimate approval. And if you don't like it, let their advertisers know. Nothing gets a station's attention more quickly than input from advertisers.Tell the PressNewspapers', magazines', and TV stations' coverage of radio stations carry a lot of weight. Publicity -- negative and positive -- can make a difference in what you hear.Regulate the RegulatorsIt's pretty rare when the FCC actually denies a station's owner a renewal of its license due to public pressure, but it has happened. In theory at least, the FCC wants to know what you think. Listen closely, and you'll hear stations broadcasting special announcements when their licenses are up for renewal (or a sale is pending) -- including mentions of a "public file," which is exactly that: a file of information the FCC looks over (and any citizen can examine or contribute to) that describes how well that station serves the public interest. It took a hundred years for radio to grow from an obscure hobby into a multi-billion dollar industry. But even as the layers of modern radio multiply, taking it further and further away from that single voice talking to a single pair of ears, there's a principle that will always be in effect: Audiences are built, or lost, one person at a time. And that person is you.


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