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, MoveOn.org 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.