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.”

Adelstein hailed a Future of Music Coalition report that showed how more and more programming on local radio stations is being done at the national level by media conglomerates rather than at the local level by hometown disc jockeys. “We must consider how consolidation affects all of you as artists,” Adelstein told the crowd of several hundred recording artists and music industry players who attended the conference Monday. “Years ago, as a new artist, you might have gotten your first airplay on your local station – in a town where the DJ heard you at a local club the night before and wanted everyone in town to hear you, as well. As national groups buy out more local stations, that town may no longer have a local DJ at all.”

“Consolidation,” Adelstein warned, “often leads to the homogenization of programming. We must ask ourselves: At what point does consolidation come at the cost of the local expression that makes radio so unique and so special in this country? At what point does allowing consolidation undermine the public interest – and the quality of what we hear on the radio?”

The answer, according to many of the artists attending the conference, is that the point of impact has already been passed. “Because of radio consolidation and the emphasis of strict formats and constant cost cutting by media companies, musicians and fans of music are losing out,” says musician Jenny Toomey, who serves as executive director of the Future of Music Coalition. “Consolidation has led to less diversity.”

One member of Congress, US Senator Russ Feingold, has sought to address the negative impacts of the Telecommunications Act with legislation. The Wisconsin Democrat’s Competition in Radio and Concert Industries Act seeks to address concerns about media monopolies, the loss of diversity and the return of old-fashioned payola scandals. But before Feingold’s legislation even gets a hearing in Congress, the FCC could take steps that will lead to greater consolidation and conglomeration within media industries. At issue in coming months are proposals to ease rules that prevent a single television network from controlling stations that reach more than 35 percent of the national audience, as well as rules regarding the number of television and radio stations that one company could own in a single region. Another proposed rule change could allow one company to own a major daily newspaper and the major television and radio station in the same community.

FCC chair Michael Powell and at least two other FCC commissioners are believed to be sympathetic to demands by media corporations for further relaxation of ownership rules. But Adelstein continues to argue for caution, and he suggested that activism by musicians and music fans could yet change the character and the direction of the debate.

“Congress’s relaxation of the rules on radio consolidation has been the canary in the mine, testing whether it is safe to go in before miners dare enter,” Adelstein explained. “The miners in this case are all the consumers affected by FCC rules that govern the ownership of television, radio, cable and newspapers,” he said. “The FCC better carefully consider the health of that canary before we proceed further, because changes to the FCC’s media ownership rules potentially could alter the media landscape as much or more than the 1996 actions by Congress changed the radio industry.”

Recalling a line from “People Get Ready” the song he played harmonica on a few minutes earlier Adelstein said: “Lester Chambers got it right: There’s a big train a coming.” And if musicians and music fans don’t want the train to roll over them, Adelstein suggested, it’s time to get active. “In order to insure that there continues to be a range of voices heard over the airwaves and through all of the media, we need to continue to hear you voices loud and clear before the FCC and throughout the government,” Adelstein said. “So turn it up!”