Don’t go looking for the compact discs of country singer Toby Keith and jazz player Ellis Marsalis, Jr., in the same section of a music megastore. Don’t expect to find a concert venue where downtown poet Patti Smith will share the stage with uptown pianoman Billy Joel. And don’t even imagine that you will be able to tune in that magic radio frequency where Neil Diamond’s croons, Pearl Jam’s rocks and Van Dyke Parks explore the musical byways of Americana.
An examination of the CD collections of most Americans will still reveal the sort of diverse tastes that find room for the acoustic folk rock of the Indigo Girls, the alternative rock of Michael Stipe and REM, and the classic rock of Don Henley and the Eagles. But an increasingly corporate and commercial media rejects this very American penchant for diversity in favor of tightly formatted radio stations, lowest-common-denominator marketing strategies and the sort of homogenized and sanitized music that sounds as if it was created by a poll or a focus group — as opposed to an artist.
Musicians of all stripes are starting to recognize that the galloping consolidation of American media — especially in radio, where most Americans were first introduced to their favorite songs — has reduced the ability of recording artists to take the risks that reshape our consciousness, to explore new ideas and new sounds and, ultimately, to be heard. Since Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which removed barriers to the number of radio stations one media conglomerate could own, the largest of these conglomerates — Texas-based Clear Channel — has grabbed more than 1,200 stations and shaped a musical mix characterized by the homogenization of playlists, the death of programming diversity, less local programming, reduced public access to the airwaves and rapidly declining public satisfaction with radio and the music it plays.
“There are clear lessons from the dramatic consolidation of ownership in the radio industry following the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and how it has impacted the historic goals of localism, competition and diversity,” says Ann Chaitovitz, Director of Sound Recordings at The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA). And the lessons are not good for American music or American musicians.
That’s why now, as the five members of the Federal Communications Commission consider a series of rule changes that would open the door to more consolidation, commercialism, corporatism and corruption, Keith, Marsalis, Smith, Joel, Diamond, Stipe, Henley, Parks, Pearl Jam and the Indigo Girls have joined two dozen other prominent artists to sign a letter that asks the FCC to halt the rush to enact six major rules changes by early June.
The musicians are urging FCC chair Michael Powell to provide Congress and citizens a full opportunity to review proposed changes of media ownership rules before they are enacted. In addition, they make the case that basic rules to control against monopolies, hyper-commercialism and the loss of local content are both needed and broadly supported by Americans. “We believe the record demonstrates both the value of existing media ownership rules and the dangers in permitting widespread consolidation of ownership,” the letter declares. “We also believe the FCC has been negligent in listening to important stakeholder groups, like musicians, recording artists and radio professionals, to ensure their testimony is on the record.”
The letter from some of the best-known musicians in the U.S. is the latest sign of the broad opposition that rule changes being considered by the FCC — which would allow one company to own newspapers, television and radio in the same town, and which would allow more consolidation of media ownership on the local and national levels.
“The Commission is considering possible changes to broadcast ownership rules which were put in place by Congress to ensure that the public would have access to a wide range of news, information, and programming, as well as diverse political views. Repeal or significant modification of these rules would likely open the door to numerous mergers that could reduce competition and diversity in the media. A final rule, significantly altering media ownership limits, could have serious ramifications for robust public debate and the marketplace of ideas,” read a recent letter from leaders of Consumers Union, the Consumer Federation of America, the AFL-CIO, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and other groups that urged Powell to open up the process. “The mass media provide Americans the information and news they need to participate fully in our democratic society. If media ownership rules are seriously weakened, one company in a town could control the most popular newspaper, TV station, and possibly even a cable system giving it dominant influence over the content and slant of local news. Such a move would reduce the diversity of cultural and political discussion in a community.”
Musicians are especially worried about the loss of cultural diversity — and the practical impact it has on their ability to reach audiences that were once available to them. “As artists, we recognize the important role that radio and other media play in the vitality of the American culture,” says Henley. “It is outrageous that many citizens are not even aware these changes are being debated. To a large extent, this is because the FCC leadership has not fully engaged the public. But what frightens me more is the complete absence of any network coverage of this issue. The broadcast interests who clearly stand to benefit from further consolidation have seemingly absolved themselves of their responsibility to cover this proceeding as a news story. If this is the sort of biased coverage we get now I can’t imagine what will pass as journalism in the next phase of our increasingly consolidated media future.”
Among the other musicians joining Henley in signing the letter are Jackson Browne, Jimmy Buffett, David Crosby, Tim McGraw, Joan Osborne, Tom Petty, Bonnie Raitt, Tom Waits, Jennifer Warnes, Nancy Wilson of Heart, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, Fleerwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks, and Ray Manzarek of Doors fame.