Inside Radio

This past weekend, a little bit of my past showed up on my doorstep here in Seattle.

It came in the form of the annual Radio Show, a trade convention hosted by one of the country's most powerful lobby groups, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB). The NAB throws two conventions each year -- one for radio, one for TV and radio combined. I spent 15 years working in radio, and for the last several, as the head of a small industry business, I was a faithful NAB attendee.

About a dozen years ago, I got out, propelled by a combination of health problems and revulsion at the steady corporatization of a once-creative business. Since then, the trend toward McRadio didn't just accelerate -- it exploded, fueled by the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and the massive corporate takeovers it encouraged.

A generation ago, radio was frequently fun and unpredictable; stations were often unique reflections of a community, in part because big chains didn't exist. Companies could own only one AM and one FM in an area, and no more than seven of each nationally.

Today, America's largest radio chain, Clear Channel, owns well over 1,200 stations -- a full 15 percent of the country's total. As is common for the modern media conglomerate, Clear Channel also owns other media -- in its case, lots of billboards and much of the country's concert promotion.

Satellite technology and the advent of big companies has meant that stations now sound the same across the country -- in fact, your local station often is the same, with DJs in Dallas or Denver capable of being on hundreds of stations at once -- "it's ten before the hour" -- and indistinguishable from someone down the street. At times, the same programs -- Rush Limbaugh, Howard Stern, Art Bell -- get beamed across the country. Staffs have been slashed, pricey items like news and public affairs dropped. With deregulation, the FCC no longer requires public service.

The frequent result -- bland music, predictable talk, no real news -- and the inability of local communities to have our own stations, has frustrated a lot of people. This past weekend, some of them converged in a park adjoining the conference center, and at a converted church a couple of blocks away, protesting the NAB and McRadio and generating new ideas in the rapidly blossoming world of alternative media.

The two groups were yards apart, and planets apart. What was most striking was that as I went back and forth, each group repeatedly proclaimed its passion for radio. But they meant completely different things. Outside, they were talking about radio's immediacy and the things that could be broadcast. Inside, they enthused over radio's ability to tailor itself to advertisers' needs. Radio, in the corporate model, is tomato sauce. While the scraggly protesters outside debated tomato sauce recipes, inside, executives talked about how to sell tomato sauce. Or cars, or sneakers. Or radio. Or culture, or news. Whatever.

The contrast was never clearer than in the only NAB session on the one issue the media protesters were most worked up about. It was titled "You're Consolidated: Pros and Cons." But strangely, neither the moderator nor any of the three panelists could actually find anything bad to say about corporate consolidation -- the wretched effect it has had on radio, for example, or the dangers of cultural and political hegemony it might pose.

Chuck Frederick, a Clear Channel exec from Cincinnati, where his company owns eight stations that reach 93 percent of that city's listeners, enthused of his industry's consolidation that "I don't know that we've done anything wrong," and claimed that "Clear Channel is like a very kind gorilla." Mike Carter -- owner of Kansas City's only three African-American-formatted stations, and the only non-white in the room (there were four women) -- called it "a fact of life for all the right reasons ... there's been a lot of money generated by [station] sales." Carter acknowledged that minority ownership has declined since 1996 (as has racial diversity among radio's employees). But he was more concerned that no more local stations were available for his company to buy than that he'd already bought out Kansas City's only other minority owner.

The only question from the audience came from the head of the Minnesota Association of Broadcasters, worried about how to respond because big media ownership was a "hot-button issue back home." Pressed on the matter, Don Benson, of mid-sized chain Jefferson-Pilot Communications, acknowledged job losses in the industry, but crowed that consolidation had "raised the industry's profile on Wall Street" and dismissed criticism of corporate control as irrelevant -- "You can't put that genie back in the bottle."

But there have been job losses. This year's Radio Show drew less than half the attendees it would have 15 years ago. Exhibitors are down, too. Notably absent were vendors selling program content -- while the NAB has always had a sales focus, this year what listeners actually hear was hardly mentioned at all. We're an afterthought.

Nowhere is that truer than at Clear Channel. Frederick's "very kind gorilla" gained some notoriety in the wake of 9/11 for a widely circulated list, generated by program directors, of songs individual stations should avoid, from the tasteless ("Dust in the Wind") to the pointedly censorious ("Imagine," "Peace Train"). Clear Channel is at the heart of "neo-payola" accusations that record industry payments to consultants are driving some of the choices as to what music we hear. And in San Francisco last year, one of the country's best-known hip-hop personalities, Davey D, was fired from Clear Channel's KMEL for interviewing Rep. Barbara Lee on her vote against bombing Afghanistan.

Davey, along with Amy Goodman (Pacifica's "Democracy Now!"), David Barsamian (Alternative Radio), and others, electrified a crowd of over 1,000 Friday night. It was the high point of four days of protests and shadow conferencing by media activists -- folks both critical of big media and intent on creating media in the margins themselves. Activists from the Net, from low power FM (eviscerated by NAB lobbying) and pirate radio, from cable access TV and all manner of print publications, milled about trading strategies and wondering what was going on inside.

The answer would have been incomprehensible to most of them -- sales seminars, mostly, with PPMs and TSLs and Cumes and Multiples. The genie is out, with our country's radio dial auctioned off in six short years -- and the irony for the activists is that heroes like Goodman and Barsamian appear on many scores of stations, too.

But then, the vision held by the folks outside was equally foreign to most NAB attendees: that our media isn't just another type of tomato sauce, that it's essential for cultural diversity and for the information citizens need in a democracy. That's a trait every other Western democracy recognizes with a mixture of privately and publicly funded radio and TV. Radio is different, not because of its selling power, but because it helps determine who we are as a people.

To some of the folks inside, that's the same thing. By the end of the weekend, I was glad to be outside.

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