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The Noise on I-40 | The Nation

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Beat the Devil

The Noise on I-40

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Drive across the United
States, mostly on Interstate 40, and you have plenty of time to
listen to the radio. Even more time than usual if, to take my own
situation, you're in a 1976 Ford 530 one-ton, plowing along at 50
mph. By day I listen to FM.

Bunked down at night, there's
some choice on the motels' cable systems, all the way from C-SPAN to
pay-as-you-snooze filth, though there's much less of that than there
used to be. Or maybe you have to go to a Marriott or kindred high-end
place to get it. By contrast, the choice on daytime radio, FM or AM,
is indeed a vast wasteland, far more bleak than the high plains of
Texas and New Mexico I've been looking at for the past couple of
days. It's awful. Even the religious stuff has gone to the dogs. I
remember twenty years ago making the same drive through the Bible
Belt and you'd hear crazed preachers raving in tongues. These days
hell has gone to love. Christian radio is so warm and fuzzy you'd
think you were listening to Terry Gross.

By any measure,
and you don't need to drive along I-40 to find this out, radio in
this country is in ghastly shape. Since the 1996 Telecommunications
"Reform" Act, conceived in darkness and signed in stealth, the
situation has got even worse. Twenty, thirty years ago broadcasters
could own only a dozen stations nationwide and no more than two in
any single market. Clear Channel Communications alone owns and
operates almost 1,200 stations pumping out identical muck in all
states. Since 1996 there's been a colossal shakeout. Small
broadcasters can no longer hack it. Two or three companies, with
eight stations each, can control a market. Bob McChesney cites an
industry publication as saying that the amount of advertising is up
to eighteen minutes an hour, with the commercials separated by the
same endless golden oldies. On I-40 in Tennessee alone I listened to
"Help!" at least sixteen times.

The new chairman of the
FCC, Colin Powell's son Michael, has just made life even easier for
Clear Channel and the other big groups. On March 12 he OK'd
thirty-two mergers and kindred transactions in twenty-six markets.
Three days later, at the instigation of the FCC, cops burst into
Radio Free Cascadia in Eugene, Oregon, seized broadcasting equipment
and shut RFC down.

Michael Powell--actually installed on
the FCC by Clinton in 1997, no doubt eager to stroke Powell Senior at
the time--is clearly aiming for higher things than the FCC, and he's
certainly increased his own family's resources. His OK of the
AOL-Time Warner merger stands to net his father, a man freighted with
AOL stock options derived from his recent service on that company's
board, many millions of dollars. Michael insists there was a Chinese
wall across the family dining table and that he and Dad never chatted
about AOL. Why would they need to? If there's a hippo on the hearth
rug, you don't need to put a sign on it.

Is there any chink
of light amid the darkness of Radioland? Yes, there is. Several, in
fact. For one thing, the tide may be turning in the Pacifica fight.
In the recent meeting in Houston the national Pacifica board took a
beating in its effort to fix the bylaws so as to make it easier to
continue its mission of destruction. And recent court decisions in
California have favored courtroom challenges to the national board's
onslaughts on local control of stations such as KPFA.

Above
all, the Pacifica Board is now reaping the consequences of its
forcible late-night seizure of WBAI offices last December and the
barely credible arrogance and stupidity of WBAI interim station
manager Utrice Leid, who on March 5 pulled the plug on Representative
Major Owens in the midst of a live broadcast because he dared discuss
Pacifica's affairs.

A furious Owens has now raised a stink
on the floor of the House about Pacifica's highhanded conduct and has
put forward a plan to settle the row. Somewhere down the road we can
maybe see a scenario developing in which the Pacifica National Board
gets pushed toward the exit. Meanwhile, Juan Gonzalez, who resigned
from Democracy Now! recently, recommends: Don't finance the
enemy. Put your contributions to Pacifica stations in
escrow.

And low-power radio? The commercial broadcasters
fought savagely all last year to beat back the FCC's admittedly
flawed plan to license more than 1,000 low-power stations. In the end
the radio lobby attached a rider to an appropriations bill signed by
Clinton late last year, with provisions insuring that low power would
never gain a foothold in cities, also insuring that the pirate
broadcasters of yesteryear, who created the momentum for low power,
could never get licenses. But make no mistake who the real villain
was. Listen to Peter Franck of the National Lawyers Guild in San
Francisco, who has been a leading force in the push for low-power FM.
"From talking to people in DC it is absolutely clear that if NPR had
not vigorously joined the National Association of Broadcasters in its
attempt to kill microradio, the legislation would not have gone
through."

But all would-be low-power broadcasters should
know that right now there's opportunity. The FCC has been accepting
applications for licenses (in some regions the window has already
closed), and mostly it's been conservatives (churches included)
jumping in. In many states you can still make applications to the
FCC. Jump in! Contact the Lawyers Guild's Center on Democratic
Communications at (415) 522-9814 or Aakorn@igc.org, but first take a
look at their website (www.nlgcdc.org).

These fights are
all essentially the same, against the same enemy, whether in the form
of the Pacifica board or the directors of NPR or the NAB or the
government: the fight for democracy in communications. Here Franck
and others are already contemplating a deeper assault on the 1996 act
and the 1934 Communications Act, on constitutional grounds. The
purpose of the First Amendment is democracy. Democracy requires a
broad range of opinion. After sixty-five years of a commercially
based media system we have a narrow range of debate; this abuse of
the airwaves is therefore unconstitutional. That's a big fight, but
here it comes.

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