Thursday, June 24, 2004

Make Radio More Local Again – Support Low-Power FM

By Steve Macek and Karen Young.

As educators who teach college students about media, we hear a lot of complaints about the sorry state of commercial radio.

When our students are assigned to listen to the radio and report what they hear, horror stories abound. Earlier this year, one student reported that his station, Chicago rock outlet WZZN The Zone, had played approximately 13 minutes of commercials, one song, and then another 12 or so minutes of commercials. Many complain about how the best new rock bands are missing and about the violent and misogynist content of the hip-hop selected for airplay. Even those who hope to land a job in the industry can’t muster much enthusiasm about what they hear.

Why is radio today so terrible, and what can be done to make it better?

Ownership changes have a lot to do with the problems. Companies used to be limited to owning one AM and one FM station in each market, and seven stations nationwide. In those days, there were many local owners deeply tied to their communities, and dozens of radio companies around the country. Through the 1980’s and 90’s, regulations were relaxed, until they were all but abolished through the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

Since 1996, ownership of many of the nation’s 10,000 radio stations was rapidly consolidated in the hands of a few companies, some of them the same companies who dominate all media. In the major cities, where most of the population lives, most of the viable stations are now owned by Viacom, Disney, and the largest radio owner, a company called Clear Channel.

Clear Channel owns more than 1,200 stations and takes in at least 20% of all radio revenues. In Chicago, it owns six stations, including all the leading stations targeting African Americans (WGCI-AM and FM, WVAZ, and WNUA). In Rockford, Cumulus – the company best known for banning the Dixie Chicks after one of their members made anti-Bush comments – owns four leading stations. More than half the population tunes to at least one of their stations.

Clear Channel and conglomerates like it have improved their profits by slashing local jobs, replacing unique local elements with standardized programming created at regional and national headquarters, and sharply increasing the number of commercials. There’s just not enough diverse voices or local content in commercial radio anymore. That’s bad for our culture, and bad for our democracy.

Fortunately, our students aren’t the only ones who’ve noticed how bad radio has become.

Since 1996, community voices agitating for more alternatives to commercial radio have become louder and louder. In 2000, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decided to allow hundreds of new low-power FM (LPFM) radio stations to go on the air. With a broadcast radius of up to 10 miles, these non-commercial stations could serve their neighborhoods with local public affairs and news programming and a wider array of music. The plan seemed like an ideal way to offset some of the losses caused by media ownership consolidation.

But the big corporate broadcasters lobbied against LPFM, claiming that low-power transmitters would interfere with their signals and had to be sharply limited. Under pressure from the National Association of Broadcasters, Congress blocked the FCC from giving licenses to many stations. In several areas, especially large cities, there were no channels left after the Congressional action.

Now the time has come to revisit LPFM. A recent FCC-commissioned study found that in fact, LPFM stations don’t interfere with high-powered signals. Senator John McCain has introduced legislation in Congress that could bring LPFM back. According to Hannah Sassaman of the Prometheus Radio Project, a low-power advocacy group, if the bill passes Illinois would be likely to gain dozens, if not hundreds, of new low-power stations.

Low-power radio helps restore diversity and localism to the airwaves. For example, WRYR is an LPFM station owned by South Arundel Citizens for Responsible Development (SACReD). With their station, SACReD can publicize their efforts to control sprawling development in the Chesapeake Bay area in Maryland.

In Chicago, the Southwest Youth Collaborative—a group that works with youth from some of the city’s most poverty-stricken neighborhoods—had hoped to start an LPFM station. But because of the limits on LPFM imposed by Congress, the group was unable to secure a license.

Congress should act to give groups like the Southwest Youth Collaborative a voice by passing the McCain bill. Low power radio may not solve all the problems with radio, but it would be a huge step in the right direction.

Steve Macek is an Assistant Professor of Speech Communication at North Central College in Naperville, IL.

Karen Young is an adjunct professor at Columbia College in Chicago, IL, and a founder of local media activist group Active Voice.

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