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Media Circus

Know Your Moguls (Part 2)

By Michael Anft | Posted 4/10/2002

Now that the Big Bad Wolves (translation: media conglomerates) have gotten even more encouragement from the federal courts to blow down the houses of Little Pigs (read: local television and radio stations), the huffing and puffing can begin in earnest. In an April 2 ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington ordered the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to reconsider rules limiting the number of TV stations that a broadcasting company can own in a single market. In a case brought in January, Cockeysville-based Sinclair Broadcast Group, owner of locals WBFF (channel 45) and WNUV (channel 54) and dozens of stations nationwide, had urged the court to send the so-called "duopoly" regulations back to the FCC's drawing board. Given recent actions by the FCC and its Dubya-appointed big-money-puppet chairperson, Michael Powell, the limit on station ownership within a small or midsized market is toast, even though media watchdog groups plan a Supreme Court appeal. With Powell (son of Secretary of State Colin Powell, incidentally) in charge, media conglomerates have stepped up their legal assault on the FCC, realizing that the iron has never been hotter for a strike on laws designed to prevent concentration of media outlets in the hands of a few. Last month, the appeals court ruled that Viacom, owner of CBS and UPN, did not have to sell off stations to comply with an FCC regulation barring one company from reaching more than 35 percent of the national audience. Viacom signals currently vie for the attention of 41 percent of Americans.

What does all this mean? Everything and nothing. Media consumers will still have their local TV and radio stations--the spots on the dial are too valuable for anyone to give them up--and corporations will make sure that there is programming to fill them. But we can expect more homogenization in formatting, and pruning of local shows that are expensive to produce and, hence, undesirable to the shareholder-cowed managers who are driving the early model of media convergence. If you're a local news reporter who has harbored dreams of changing careers, now might be the time to fill out those grad-school applications. The coming corporate ownership of local stations by outfits much bigger than Sinclair could mean the end of those news friends we can turn to. (A mixed blessing, I know.)

Locally, we've already seen the effects of convergence on radio, most notably at erstwhile alternarock favorite WHFS (99.1 FM). Once the spirited, eccentric, sometimes maddening baby of local ad man Jake Einstein (who went on the start the aging hippie of local radio, WRNR [103.1 FM]), 'HFS began to slip after Chicago-based conglomerate Duchossois Industries bought it in 1987 and plummeted after Infinity Radio purchased the station in the 1990s. Infinity, a division of Viacom, owns 180 stations in 40 markets, including seven other locals--WLIF (101.9 FM), WQSR (102.7 FM), WXYV (105.7 FM), WWMX (106.5 FM), WBMD (750 AM), WBGR (860 AM), and WJFK (1300 AM)--as well as TV station WJZ (channel 13). (Disclosure: City Paper is not above doing some "converging" of its own; this paper's parent company, Scranton, Pa.-based Times-Shamrock, counts WZBA [100.7 FM] and WTTR [1470 AM] among its many holdings.)

Infinity is the king of formatting, basically duplicating station genres--alternative, pop, country--in every city where it has such stations. So, the once funky and idiosyncratic WHFS began to lose its core audience as Infinity turned it into a carbon of every other white-boys-with-guitars outpost in the country. Recently, amid rumors of draconian cost cutting, 'HFS did its audience a favor by ditching its overheated DJs for a "jockless January," a gulag from which few old station hands returned. (Infinity didn't return calls for comment on WHFS's finances.)

Nearly all of the 30 or so privately held radio stations in the Baltimore market are owned by outsiders. But while WHFS shows just how badly that can go wrong, the area's Hearst-Argyle-owned properties show that local stations need not be eviscerated by corporate thinking. WBAL (1090 AM) and WIYY (aka 98 Rock, 97.9 FM) have kept the provincial flavor that inspires loyalty in these parts, and likely elsewhere too--the former by using its huge budget and powerful signal to remain the Orioles' flagship station, the latter by retaining longtime on-air talent (Sarah Fleisher, former CP film critic Bob Lopez). Hearst-Argyle, which also owns WBAL-TV (channel 11), seems to grasp that talent and entertainment can be locally produced--a rarity in any medium, electronic or print, these days.

But as the federal courts further entice the FCC to become a crony for corporate Darwinists, that type of thinking is unlikely to be replicated. Which means we'll end up with a few Big Bad Wolves deciding what the country watches and hears and even fewer Little Pigs keeping the home fires burning with the local news shows and public-interest programming that the FCC once encouraged in the name of fostering an informed electorate. Who says a few hundred votes in Florida didn't make a difference?

The Body in Question

March 30 might have been a bad day for you, but it probably wasn't anywhere near as disturbing as it was for "Ralph D. Chester, 75, steel company supervisor." Chester was among that day's five obituary subjects memorialized by The Sun. Trouble is, Chester is reportedly still kicking. Longtime Sun staffer Frederick Rasmussen, Chester's newsprint eulogist, says he was hornswoggled by an estranged son of Chester's, whose report of his father's death was greatly exaggerated. Rasmussen says the embarrassing slip was made amid a period of heightened vigilance. "Around April Fool's Day, I try to be especially careful," he says, sounding a bit shaken by Chester's brush with death. "But this guy [Chester's son] seemed genuine--very distraught and shaky." Rasmussen talked with the would-be decedent on April 1 and found out everything in the write-up was true, save its central fact. Chester apologized for his son's behavior, Rasmussen says, and added that the two haven't talked for three years. A correction on page 2A of the April 2 paper exhumed Chester's rhetorical corpse thusly: "An obituary in Saturday's editions of The Sun reported the death of Ralph D. Chester of Millers Island. Mr. Chester is not dead. . . ." Rasmussen, after calling the son back to vent his anger, also wrote Chester a note of apology.

Sun editor William Marimow, who has professed pride at the changes made in the obit page in recent years, says a change in protocol may be on its way: "I think we're going to have to be more vigilant. We'll have to confirm a death with an independent source." Rasmussen says making extra calls to a funeral home or anatomy board might prevent future embarrassment--and calls from national news organizations, such as National Public Radio, which contacted Rasmussen about the snafu.

This isn't the first time The Sun's obit page landed the paper a black eye. A few years ago, the paper fired a seasoned death chronicler for making up a quote and a quotee to flesh out an obituary. Still, Marimow says he's not worried about the page's credibility. "The problems before were problems of internal integrity," he says. "In this latest instance, we were duped by someone outside the paper."

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