Back in the mid-1990s, radio policy debates in Washington generated so little interest that many members of Congress were surprised to learn that they had voted–in the Telecommunications Act of 1996’s grab-bag of giveaways to corporations–to completely rewrite the rules regarding the ownership, character and content of what ought to be this country’s most democratic medium of mass communications, radio.

But as the twentieth century gave way to the twenty-first, the dimensions of the disaster created by years of bad policy-making became clear to everyone who was listening. Musicians stopped hearing their songs on the air, as disc jockeys were replaced by robots. Citizens stopped hearing local news, as thousands of broadcast journalists were replaced by syndicated right-wing ranters from New York and Los Angeles. What diversity there had been on the airwaves rapidly disappeared, as Clear Channel Communications bought up more than 1,200 radio stations nationwide–while its competitors gobbled up most of the rest–and American ears were assaulted by the heavily formatted, intellectually insipid and ideologically narrow sound of radio produced under a regimen of concentrated media ownership.

Needless to say, Americans hated what they were hearing, and millions of them came to recognize the connection between consolidation and the decline of radio as a useful–to say nothing of enlightening–medium. No small amount of the successful opposition to the Bush Administration’s move in 2003 to relax media ownership rules was stimulated by widespread outrage over what loosened media ownership rules had done to radio. In polls taken after the 2004 election, and True Majority both asked members what issue progressives should focus on this year; in each survey, media reform ranked second, behind only the integrity of the electoral system, and ahead of the Iraq War, healthcare reform and environmental protection. “People are very concerned about the media, about media policy, and what’s happened to radio since 1996 has an awful lot to do with that concern,” says Democratic Senator Russ Feingold, who has introduced legislation to address the impact of the Telecommunications Act. “Radio is such an important part of people’s lives, and they see it changing in ways that trouble them. So they are starting to ask questions, and to demand answers.”

Even as media reformers and a growing caucus of allies in Congress seek to repair the damage done to traditional radio by consolidation, many performers and listeners are tuning in to alternatives. Some of the country’s most talented and controversial on-air personalities, including Martha Stewart and Howard Stern, have signed on to the relatively new Sirius or XM satellite radio networks. Those two networks are booming–XM added 540,000 subscribers in the first three months of 2005 despite the fact that subscribers must pay monthly fees just to tune in. Their success is putting pressure on Clear Channel and Infinity, the companies that own so much of commercial radio, to loosen up tight music playlists and begin innovating again. But so far there is little evidence that the conglomerates are going to restore the local news and commentary that was lost in the rush to cut expenses in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It costs money to produce local radio that’s actually local, and the pressure from satellite radio tends mostly to be on the entertainment side of the ledger.

Podcasting, which makes audio files available online in a form that allows software to automatically detect new files and download them, may actually pose more of a threat to traditional radio. Podcasters can, at very little cost, produce local news and public affairs programs, as well as music and cultural programming, and distribute it in a form that is at once instantly available and permanently accessible. Howard Dean’s former backers, the tech-savviest of the 2004 election’s activists, have been in the forefront of producing and distributing podcasts at sites like It won’t be long until podcasts can be easily downloaded directly to cell phones and automobiles. It is in this new technology territory that some of the fiercest lobbying of the federal government is taking place. The big broadcasters aren’t at all enthusiastic about facing competition from thousands of new grassroots radio programmers, especially if the newcomers offer a genuine alternative to the drab content on stations the big broadcasters have spent millions to purchase.

Even on the frontiers of new media, the lobbying edge of the big media companies remains significant. The FCC has a lot of say regarding the allocation of spectrum–open space on the airwaves. The big traditional broadcasters are currently making the transition from analog TV to digital TV; when they are done, a sizable chunk of the public airwaves will be returned to the government. The Bush Administration wants to auction new licenses to the cell-phone companies. This would close off space on the spectrum that could be used to create public or “unlicensed” access that could clear the way for podcasts to be ubiquitous. Thus, there is a huge high-tech battle to be fought before the FCC, and potentially Congress.

But there are also plenty of battles to be fought about how big media companies use the public airwaves they have already colonized. While television gets the most attention from media critics, radio, with its lower costs and greater ease of distribution, is still the mainstream medium best able to provide access to news and culture. Simple changes in rules regarding the number of stations a single company can own, the right to reply to unfair charges and claims, and the basic responsibilities of broadcasters could dramatically improve the character and quality of American radio. And in Congress, where even conservative Republican members have begun to complain about the disappearance of radio news programming, the opening for promoting these and other changes is real.

Regrettably, much of the attention to media policy currently concerns Congressional efforts to have the FCC levy massive fines against radio and TV broadcasters who engage in “indecent” programming. Some in Congress wish to extend these fines to cable and satellite channels as well, thus making the FCC the über-commissar of electronic media content. Significantly, the most outspoken foes of the fines were those who have been in the forefront of championing real media reform. “We are heading down a slippery slope when Big Brother decides what constitutes free speech and artistic expression,” declared Democratic Representative Jan Schakowsky as she explained her opposition to the fines in the debate that preceded House passage of the bill in February. “I worry that increasing fines, especially those directed at individuals, may lead to excessive self-, if not actual, censorship.” The solution to vulgar programming, said Democratic Representative Maurice Hinchey, is to put ownership rules in place that make it less rational for firms to produce such fare. It is no coincidence that the greatest purveyors of trash–News Corporation, Viacom and Clear Channel–are also the largest media firms and the firms most dedicated to commercializing every nano-second of broadcast time.

Fortunately, a progressive agenda for radio policy is being advanced on Capitol Hill, often by bipartisan coalitions. To begin with, low-power FM radio (LPFM)–one of the best vehicles for developing and expanding community radio–is back on the docket. Five years after the commercial broadcasters pressured Congress to scale back the expansion of community radio with bogus allegations of interference, Senator John McCain has put forward a bill–the Local Community Radio Act of 2005–that would increase the number of LPFM station licenses by removing the restrictions on minimum channel separations between broadcasters. When McCain’s bill was introduced in February, dozens of LPFM practitioners and advocates packed a forum at the FCC and conducted the biggest lobbying day in the history of community radio on Capitol Hill. And this time, McCain is determined to make sure that industry lies will not define the debate. “It is time for broadcasters to stop hiding behind false claims of interference when they are really afraid of the competition from truly local broadcasters,” he says.

McCain also backs another initiative, the Localism in Broadcasting Reform Act of 2005, that would restore far stricter, pre-1996 rules for renewing radio station licenses, require the FCC to conduct a mandatory review of 5 percent of all license renewal applications–as opposed to just rubber-stamping them without comment–and set up a procedure where a challenge to an individual radio station’s license would automatically trigger a review of licenses of all stations held by that company. McCain is charged up and ready to fight for the bill, declaring, “It will have a small impact on those stations that are currently meeting their public interest obligations, but it should have a large impact on those citizens whose local broadcaster is not meeting its obligation to serve the local community.”

The Broadcasting Reform Act provides a needed vehicle for framing the public interest debate; activists at the local level can ask Senate candidates if they believe that a commercial broadcaster who refuses to cover the local community should lose the right to have a monopoly franchise to the public’s airwaves, and if the answer is yes, the activists can demand a pledge to sign on as a co-sponsor of McCain’s bill.

In the House, the Fairness and Accountability in Broadcasting Act, sponsored by New York Democrat Louise Slaughter, would reduce license renewal periods, reinstate the practice of holding public hearings to assess whether broadcasters are meeting public-interest standards, and require that stations cover important news stories with an eye to reflecting a diversity of opinions. At a time when right-wing radio dominates 90 percent of airtime devoted to public affairs, and when the GOP dominates the chamber, Slaughter’s legislation will have a hard time getting a hearing. But, like McCain’s legislation, it provides a tool for organizing, and for challenging Congressional candidates.

Meanwhile, Congress is about to launch a formal review of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, the law that loosened media ownership rules for radio, among other things. Senator Daniel Inouye, the ranking Democrat on the commerce committee, which oversees telecommunication and broadcasting regulation, has called for public sessions around the nation to get input on how the law should be updated. At the same time, the FCC, as mandated by the act, will again review its media ownership rules. FCC Democratic members Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, arguably the two most committed backers of the public interest to sit on the committee in decades, have both demanded that the FCC hold hearings across the nation to get public input. Already, the Republican majority on the committee–which, with the departure of controversial chair Michael Powell, will now be led by Bush Administration ally Kevin Martin–is quietly moving to limit debate. Copps and Adelstein will probably be forced to hold informal public hearings on their own. It is important to remember, however, that informal hearings held in 2003 played a critical role in galvanizing popular awareness of media ownership issues. Combined with Inouye’s “listening sessions,” these hearings should keep radio-related issues–particularly demands for a rollback in the number of stations that a single corporation can own and calls for investigations of payola allegations against commercial radio broadcasters–at the center of the debate through next year.

One hopes the heightened attention will help increase Congressional support for National Public Radio, which found a solid niche as the commercial system deteriorated. It’s important to bolster public funding for NPR, while at the same time working to see that NPR-affiliated stations are made more accountable to their communities. A central theme in media reform activism has to be protecting and expanding resources for public broadcasting while insuring more popular involvement.

Ultimately, however, the debate about radio cannot focus on a single network, a single format or even a single solution. “The first step toward changing things involves recognizing that radio can be better, that it is supposed to be better,” says Representative Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who has been out front on media issues for years. “When people understand that, and when they realize that because they own the airwaves they have a right to demand that radio be better, that’s when we will see all of these concerns begin to be addressed.”