It has been more than a quarter-century since Elvis Costello first spit out the biting lyrics of his song “Radio Radio”: “The radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools/Tryin’ to anaesthetize the way that you feel.” But while Costello and the punks and New Wavers did their best to push back against increasing homogenization, the promise of radio–long the most democratic of the traditional mass media–continued to be squandered. Big media corporations and their allies in Congress and on the Federal Communications Commission quietly rewrote the rules during the 1980s and ’90s to clear away barriers to consolidation, thereby ushering in an era in which the news was dumbed down, dissent was stifled and the music all started to sound the same.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the death of radio: A new generation of progressives began to fight back. As Garrison Keillor says here, “Liberals actually enjoy living in a free society; tuning in to hear an echo is not our idea of a good time.” Responses to the collapse of diversity that followed passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act haven’t made radio what it should be, especially at the local level. But activists have restored hope that radio might again become a vehicle for spreading democracy and culture. Most Americans can now listen to Democracy Now! with Amy Goodman (profiled here by Lizzy Ratner) on Pacifica, community or NPR stations, as well as on public-access cable TV, Free Speech TV, shortwave radio and the Internet. And in more than fifty communities across the country, including sixteen of the top radio twenty, they can tune in to Air America (profiled here by Nicholas von Hoffman) and hear Al Franken, Randi Rhodes, Janeane Garofalo and others offer a bracing counter to the ranting of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. North Dakota populist Ed Schultz is heard on more than eighty stations, along with the XM and Sirius satellite networks. And in national markets, NPR offers an alternative, although, as Scott Sherman notes here, it is not nearly as spirited or edgy an option as it once was. In a dozen states, mainly in the upper Midwest and West, community organizations and activists, working in consortiums like the Minnesota News Connection and the Northern Rockies News Service, have begun producing and distributing quality news and public affairs programs to fill the gap created by the shuttering of local news operations.
It’s too early to say that a corner has been turned: Consolidation continues, and with it the squeezing out not just of ideas but of the vast majority of recording artists and some of the most vibrant genres of regional music. But it’s getting harder for big media to win the important fights, thanks to a burgeoning media reform movement detailed here by Robert W. McChesney, John Nichols and Ben Scott. That movement has prevented the implementation of an industry-backed restructuring of ownership rules and is winning allies for moves to address both the damage done by consolidation and consolidation itself. One means for doing that is low-power FM radio, whose leading champion is the Prometheus Radio Project (profiled here by Rick Karr). The reform movement has also prompted debates about regulation of satellite radio, podcasting and other new technologies.
There is still a lot of work to do. But the combination of programming innovations, new technologies and a media reform movement that has the clout not just to prevent the bad but promote the good might yet put meaning into another line from Elvis Costello’s old song: “Radio is a sound salvation.”