America stands on the cusp of a sweeping set of shifts in federal media ownership rules that could dramatically alter the nature of what we see, hear and read, warns Federal Commications Commission member Jonathan S. Adelstein. Dialogue and debate about these proposed changes must be ramped up quickly if the public interest is to be protected.
But first, how about a harmonica solo?
Before delivering his first major policy address at the annual conference of the Future of Music Coalition, Adelstein wowed a crowd of several hundred there by playing a mean harmonica during a performance by Lester Chambers of the groundbreaking 1960s group The Chambers Brothers.
Adelstein, a Democrat whose appointment to the five-member FCC was recently approved, could not have chosen a better way to introduce himself to the musicians, journalists and advocates who crowded an ancient hall on Washington’s Georgetown University campus. Appearing on a stage that had been occupied during this year’s Future of Music Coalition conference by rock stars like Patti Smith and Living Color’s Vernon Reid, jazz players such as Alfonzo Blackwell, producers like the legendary Sandy Pearlman and media personalities such as Ira Glass, host of the This American Life radio show, Adelstein knew he had to perform. And he got high marks for his able riffs during Chambers’ performance of “People Get Ready.”
But he got higher marks for his eyes-wide-open report on the devastating impact of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 on radio diversity. Before an audience filled with people who worry that the Congress or the FCC just don’t get it, Adelstein came across as a commissioner who understands what is at stake when regulators allow media corporations to dominate whole communications systems.
“The 1996 Act entirely eliminated a cap on the number of radio stations a single company can own nationwide. It also relaxed local ownership limits, permitting a single owner to control up to eight stations in the nations’ largest markets. As one might have predicted, the relaxation of these rules led inevitably to more stations in fewer hands,” Adelstein said.
“According to one FCC report, in the six years since the adoption of the 1996 Act, the number of radio station owners in the United States declined by 34 percent, even though the number of commercial radio stations increased by 5.4 percent. The FCC found that the decline is primarily due to mergers between existing owners.”
To illustrate the dramatic nature of the changes that have taken place, Adelstein noted that, “In 1996, the two largest radio group owners consisted of fewer than 65 radio stations. Six years later, the largest radio group owns about 1,200 radio stations. The second largest group owns about 250 stations. Their influence is even larger than their numbers suggest, because they are concentrated in the largest markets in the country.”