Airwaves, Shock Waves
Hearing a Dixie Chicks song on your hometown Clear Channel or Cumulus Media radio station doesn't necessarily seem that urgent for the average radio listener, especially when the government has just finished bombing the hell out of Iraq. A country-pop band's clash with industry execs can't compare in significance to the toppling of a murderous regime in the wake of the biggest terrorist action in U.S. history and thousands of resulting deaths.
But a handful of major networks has indeed grounded the airplay of the war-critical Dixie Chicks and other musicians across the country and in Europe, launching a hum of chatter about quasi censorship and alerting people to the fact that despite assumptions to the contrary, there are politics in the airwaves.
It started with Georgia-based Cumulus Media, America's second-largest broadcasting company, publicly bulldozing Dixie Chicks CDs after lead singer Natalie Maines admitted to a London audience that she was ashamed of the behavior of fellow-Texan President George W. Bush. The New York Times, on March 31, reported that stations owned by Texas-based Clear Channel, the nation's largest broadcasting company, had stopped playing the Dixie Chicks because of the remark. In a decision cited in international media reports, MTV-Europe nixed all B-52's videos to avoid invoking thoughts of war and planes. Madonna also purportedly joined the fray by banning her own Bush-and-fatigues video on April 4, just days before its scheduled release.
"It's kind of a sad statement about the psyche of the nation," says Gary Schoenwetter, operations manager for San Jose rock stations KSJO and KUFX, adding that some touring musicians have asked not to be interviewed about the war, because they're against it and fear reprisals.
Despite Schoenwetter's sympathy for the Dixie Chicks, whose wartime artistic crime was speaking out at a concert, he happens to work for Clear Channel, which owns KSJO and KUFX. Schoenwetter, who is in charge of programming, says that there was no mandate sent down from Clear Channel headquarters regarding the issue, but he combed through station playlists anyway after the war broke out, looking for anything that he thought would be "in poor taste."
His goal, he says, was merely "to try to depoliticize the music," and he didn't end up banning anything. As an example of the kind of thing he might have banned, he cites R.E.M.'s "It's the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine), but this song, he adds, wasn't on their playlist.
Schoenwetter says that radio stations don't rely solely on the taste of listeners. "You're constantly looking at the music you're playing under the microscope of whatever may be going on at the time," Schoenwetter explains.
"Radio is ultimately a business," he sums up. "It's where art and commerce meet."
Schoenwetter's insights beg the fundamental question: Who owns the airwaves, anyway? The answer is simple. According to the FCC, the public owns the airwaves. But in light of recent reports of airplay selectivity, political lobbying by networks and the repercussions of political dissent by artists, some critics believe that it would be easy for the public not to know it.
"Most people think it's advertisers buying time from the broadcasters," says San Jose State University professor Kimb Massey, who teaches the media and society class in the TV-radio-film-theater department. "That's not what's really happening. Advertisers are buying us from the broadcasters. We are the product."
The St. Petersburg Times ran an article just one week after the World Trade Center attacks reporting on the internal memo that Clear Channel sent to its stations suggesting they drop 150 songs. The list included Tom Petty's "Free Fallin'," "The End" by the Doors, "You Dropped a Bomb on Me" by the Gap Band, Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" and "Leaving on a Jet Plane" by Peter, Paul and Mary.
Clear Channel's PR rep, who asked that her name not be used, denies this charge and says the only change headquarters has made since the war started was to add extra news broadcasts. "They continued to program their stations as they always do," the spokesperson says. "Programming is at the local level. ... There never has been, and never will be, a corporate [mandated] media playlist."
She declined to comment on the giant pro-war Rally for America events that Clear Channel organized last month.
Cumulus, the network that destroyed Dixie Chicks CDs and reportedly banned the group on all of its stations' playlists, didn't return phone calls.
But networks are still reportedly silencing some music. A letter allegedly from an MTV executive, currently making the rounds on the Internet, cites "heightened public sensitivity to representations of war, soldiers, bombing, destruction of buildings and public unrest at home" as a reason to stop playing selected videos. The list singles out System of a Down's "Boom!" because it's an "antiwar video containing facts and figures about, among other things, the projected casualties in the war in Iraq." The alleged letter also includes Aerosmith's "Don't Want to Miss a Thing," Passengers' and U2's "Miss Sarajevo," Bon Jovi's "This Ain't a Love Song," Iggy Pop's "Corruption," Trick Daddy's "Thug Holiday" and any song titles or band names that include words like bomb, missile or war.
The U.K.'s Times Online reported on March 25 that an MTV Europe spokesperson confirmed that the memo was real. A spokesperson in MTV's U.S. press office acknowledged seeing the letter but said that it didn't apply in the United States.
San Jose's Clear Channel station isn't alone in thinking R.E.M. would be inappropriate. On March 30, the Denver Post reported on what seems to be an epidemic. "These giant corporations that own radio have a vested interest in not rocking the boat," R.E.M. bassist told the Post. "Thank God for the Internet, because we're fighting against a corporate culture that makes it practically impossible to get a protest song on the air."
That complaint, of course, overlooks independent and college radio stations, which can play a critical role in keeping less mainstream or more controversial music available to listeners.
KRTY, an independently owned San Jose country station, for instance, still plays the Dixie Chicks. "We felt that our role is to play music, not make political statements," says Nate Deaton, KRTY's assistant program director.
DJ Dominic Trix of Foothill College's KFJC also believes stations have to carve an independent identity. "Here at the radio station, there are no regulations about offending people," Trix says. "I've offended people tons of times." In fact, he adds, his response to the war in Iraq was to start playing "War" by Edwin Starr and "War Pigs" by Black Sabbath.
Some say the real war on the delivery of independent thought over the airwaves grew its wings seven years ago, when, by congressional order, the Federal Communications Commission passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996. In the name of creating healthy competition, it promised to bolster diversity in the public interest.
Instead, by all critical accounts, the act deregulated media ownership by lifting caps on how large and broad-based network conglomerates could become. This gave Clear Channel Communications the means to swell from 43 radio stations in 1995, before deregulation, to more than 1,200 now. The concentration of media ownership in fewer hands and the elimination of hundreds of independent media outlets have made the effects of politically selective programming more widely felt.
Media watchdog groups like Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), the Center for Digital Democracy, the Media Access Project and the Future of Music Coalition are trying to kick up a storm of activism around the FCC's current biennial review of its rules, which comes down June 2, as mandated by the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
"What the radio stations do is not technically censorship," says Svetlana Mintcheva, arts advocacy coordinator for the National Coalition Against Censorship. "Censorship has to be done by the government. The problem is that if Clear Channel owns like 1,200 radio stations--when there is no other station to provide other perspectives--it reduces the diversity" of what's played. "Whoever has the strongest, most economically viable force controls radio."
"For democracy to stay alive there have to be different voices," Mintcheva says. But echoing Clear Channel's local radio station operations manager Schoenwetter, she adds, "It is a public service. It's also a business."
FCC Fights Feds?
The FCC rejects the notion that it has any real say over past or future potential deregulation. According to an FCC spokesperson (who, oddly, asked not to be named or directly quoted), the buck goes to Congress and the courts.
The FCC, for example, has tried to defend its rules against industry domination since 1996 and lost in federal appeals court four out of five times. And because the 1996 legislation puts the burden of proof on the FCC to defend each regulation, the spokesperson feels certain that the FCC will end up in court defending its remaining rules again, regardless of its decision June 2. One rule under review is whether the FCC can keep limits on the number of radio stations a single company can own. Currently, a company can own eight in a single local market. The industry wants to eliminate this cap.
The official public comment period has ended, although comments are accepted, up until the final vote, on the FCC's website (www.fcc.gov). So far, the spokesperson says, of the roughly 1,500 public comments received, most oppose deregulation, although it hasn't been widely reported in the press.
Indeed, some speculate that media news reports have been skewed toward corporate owners. A recent web posting by political critic and Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Michael Moore refutes media claims that the Dixie Chicks are hurting for popularity since the anti-Bush comment. "This week, after all the attacks, their album is still at No. 1 on the Billboard country charts, and according to Entertainment Weekly, on the pop charts during all the brouhaha, they rose from No. 6 to No. 4," Moore wrote in early April.
But many artists in the music industry are apparently still afraid to speak out.
Left-wing actor Tim Robbins spoke about broadcasters' political intimidation to the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on April 15. "A famous middle-aged rock & roller called me last week to thank me for speaking out against the war," Robbins told his audience, "only to go on to tell me that he could not speak himself because he fears repercussions from Clear Channel. 'They promote our concert appearances,' he said. 'They own most of the stations that play our music. I can't come out against the war.'"
That may sound a bit paranoid. But the concern is not unreasonable, given Clear Channel's top-level ties to the Bush administration. Last year alone, Clear Channel Communications infused the Republican Party with nearly $120,000 in campaign contributions. (It contributed $25,000 to the Democrats.) That kind generosity probably isn't lost on FCC Chair Michael Powell, son of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, and the current target of heavy lobbying by broadcast networks in favor of fewer regulations.