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.