Take This Media...Please!
Phil Donahue's early career included both radio and television news journalism experience. The Phil Donahue Show, which he founded in 1967, was the first audience-participation talk show in American history.
In 1959 I worked for WABJ in Adrian, Michigan. "The Voice of Lenawee County" was the proverbial small-wattage station in the Midwest, a dead-end place unless you were young and fearless enough to use it as a gateway to bigger things. When I was twenty-something I reported more than the weather on WABJ. I announced PTA and Rotary Club meetings, births at Bixby Hospital and the daily death report from the coroner's office. I reported the local news of the day in southeast Michigan.
The Big Ten foldout chart in this issue of The Nation reveals the aftermath of the orgy of corporate cannibalism that has consumed the US broadcasting/entertainment industries since my barely noticed departure from Adrian.
It was the Adrian experience that turned me on to journalism. I was impressed with my own power--I could stop the mayor cold in his tracks just by approaching him with a microphone attached to a cumbersome Norelco tape recorder equipped with the vacuum tubes of yesteryear and a highly visible WABJ attached to the microphone. I also experienced the joy of being thrown out of an office. I had asked an unwelcome question and was promptly escorted to the door by an Adrian city commissioner. I played softball on the Police Department team, covered my first murder in nearby Hillsdale. The excitement and power of broadcast journalism were alive and well at this 250-watter in Smalltown, Michigan.
Until the 1980s one company could legally own no more than seven AM and seven FM stations. In 2001, one company, Clear Channel, owns more than 1,200. Profit at many stations is promoted by stripping staff to the bone; some of these places have barely any employees and no local programming. They are computerized corporate jukeboxes, reverse ATM machines. Their broadcast day is filled with the canned and the bland, a puree prepared at a place far away. Now we have hundreds of radio stations creating a profit with virtually no on-air personnel and no newsroom, no Associated Press wire, no birth announcements, no obits. And not least, no coverage of the police, the PTA or the Lions Club and no high school football scores.
Nothing but digital music, commercials and profit.
The radio of my youth, the place where we learned of the goings-on about town, the life stuff of a small community, is now a quaint memory replaced by computer hard drives that operate twenty-four hours, seven days without the touch of a human hand. These robotic installations also function without any pretense of "serving the public interest," the long-forgotten mandate of the FCC. The Happy Days AM radio of the 1950s may have sounded like wall-to-wall Teresa Brewer, but at least a live person spoke with us between records, and my own drive-in, sock-hop crowd got a dose of the real world during hourly newscasts.
The brokers of America's AM and FM stations argue that the reality of economics in today's radio market mandates consolidation. Nonsense: Consolidation is mandated by the greed of the broadcast lobby. Speaking of mandates, we once believed that the great promise of broadcasting mandated diversity, an ideal that dissolved along with the rules of limited ownership, an idea that came, went and should come again. It's the only way to provide a chance for brash young broadcasters who, equipped with an audio tape recorder, just might discover the power of journalism and practice the noble work of serving the public interest.
Otherwise we have abandoned, without a fight, the fabulous thing called radio. We have surrendered its promise to the large hard drive that hums relentlessly, day after day after day, in an empty room, displacing what was once a bugle of ideas and culture, a vast smorgasbord of programming, which taught us about birth and death in our hometown, and allowed a young and fearless person with a tape recorder to stop the mayor cold in his tracks.
Danny Goldberg is the CEO and co-owner of the independent music company Artemis Records.
When I look at the vast web of companies clustered in gigantic international media corporations, I imagine hundreds of nervous division managers worrying about the next quarter's profits, which are the main driver of share price, which is the primary "report card" for CEOs. An enormous proportion of the energy of most of the smartest people at these places is thus focused on an arc of ninety days or less.
Short-term thinking is not, in itself, necessarily bad for aesthetics and culture. Without such earnings pressure it seems unlikely that a group of white, middle-aged music executives would have empowered and enriched inner-city African-Americans in the rap business, producing music that is so reviled by the intellectual and political establishments. The fact that the radical political rock band Rage Against the Machine has recorded for Sony Music for its entire career further illustrates the quirkiness of the modern media corporation.
On the other hand, to have so little intellectual capital devoted to thinking years instead of months in advance creates weird distortions. Many forms of creativity are stifled or crushed in such environments. Brilliant artists with passionate audiences are cast adrift.
On the bright side, despite enormous efforts at consolidation, "independents" still have a 15-20 percent market share in the music business. Reactionaries, knaves and fools show up at indie companies as regularly as big ones, but independence does provide a more fertile environment for longer-term thinking and edgy creativity. It is no accident that rap as well as innovative rock artists such as Nirvana started on indies, nor that Ani DiFranco remains one. The rest of the media would be a lot healthier if they had equally large independent sectors, but the only way that will happen is if individuals, inspired by original and effective mavericks such as Michael Moore and Danny Schechter, take the wild and scary risk of working crazy hours against all odds and operate their own underfunded, fragile new endeavors.