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Political Animal

The Radio Still Sucks

By Brian Morton | Posted 1/21/2009

About 20 years ago, when I worked in all-news radio in Washington, the longtime and legendary midday news anchor Jamie Bragg looked at me one morning as we entered the brand-new newsroom we had all moved into a few months before. He pointed out that the main anchor booth was missing one feature that was, at the time, almost standard in every radio studio in the country: a record player. "And," he said to me, "the day they bring turntables in here, my resume is first in line to be on the copier."

Jamie shouldn't have worried about turntables.

If Steve Jobs hadn't invented the iPod, someone would have come along sooner or later and come up with a long-form personal music player simply because broadcast radio has been unlistenable for a very long time, and much of it can be laid on the money-first mentality of Wall Street and its outgoing buddies appointed by George W. Bush to the Federal Communications Commission. More and more, radio stations are eliminating local programming and bouncing it in via satellite. Just this week, The Wall Street Journal reported that the nation's largest radio chain, Clear Channel, plans on laying off around 1,500 employees and replacing even more local programming with syndicated fare.

What happened to radio is the same thing that has happened to newspapers, except it's taken longer to occur due to the sums of money involved in relation to the amount of people. Newspapers are a massive industry that involves people at every level, from harvesting trees for newsprint all the way to copy editors, editors, photographers, salespeople, and the people who drive the delivery trucks. Radio is a simple medium where, once the capital investment is made in the equipment, a skeleton staff can put out a "product"--a few salespeople, a few shifts' worth of DJs, an engineer, and a manager or two. That number grows depending on the format: news and news-talk are the costliest due to the larger staffs and the general costs of newsgathering.

But radio turned in steady and attractive profits for so long that Wall Street leaned on regulators in Washington more and more over the years to allow conglomerates to own more and more stations. As usual, this was undertaken under the Orwellian phrase "competition." A May 2005 Reuters story about Clear Channel opened with a sentence about how the company wanted the government to allow it to own more stations in a single market "so it can better compete and boost profits." Here we are, almost four years later, and the same company that wanted more stations in order to "compete" now is planning to air the same generic product on those stations, while laying off the people who run them.

In addition to the homogeneity of music radio, we've already seen the disturbing free speech implications of radio ownership in the hands of large conglomerates. If you think that group station ownership promotes free and unfettered exchanges of ideas on the "public airwaves" (yet another Orwellian misnomer), ask Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks how she remembers the year 2003. It was much easier to stampede a nation into the cause of a dishonest war when one of the main tools of mass communication was in the hands of commercial interests with little reason to broadcast dissenting voices.

But the programmers of mass-market radio have come close to beating their golden goose to death. More and more commercials are jammed into each hour (while usually telling audiences they deliver "MORE MUSIC!") in order to service the debt load the corporation took on when buying up stations. They want to own more stations in a market to "compete" by creating as close to a monopoly as possible, and then parceling out formats so that they can hedge their bets--if you own the pop station, the country station, the R&B station, and the religious station, you're guaranteed to get as much of the listeners' ears as possible in a given market. And then if you ship the programming in from somewhere else, there are fewer people you need to pay.

Right now, the conservative movement is working itself into a tizzy thinking the Obama administration is planning on reinstating the Fairness Doctrine, with which the Reagan administration did away back in the 1980s. The fairness doctrine prescribed that "equal time" should be available for all competing viewpoints on the public airwaves; an idea that was wonderful in theory, but impossible to achieve in fact. When the doctrine was lifted, combined with the relaxing of limits on station ownership, giant corporations like Clear Channel sprang up, along with the mass syndication of right-wing polemics such as Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage, who could then reinforce the conservative beliefs of those station owners. And of course, the advertising dollars sated the maw of Wall Street.

What the right should truly fear from Obama is a reinstatement of station ownership limits, letting radio ownership be local again. Until then, as the band the Ataris put it so presciently in 1999, "It's plain to see that the radio still sucks."

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