Radio Consolidation

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This is Celia Hirschman with On The Beat for KCRW.

In the last 10 years, commercial radio station ownership has changed dramatically. In that same timeframe, the music business has witnessed its most serious decline ever. Coincidence? I think not. Music sales in this country have always been primarily driven by commercial radio airplay.

Under the Clinton Administration, in 1996, the FCC made sweeping changes in the laws that govern communication. The legislation that seems to have had the most impact on the American public is the changes concerning radio station ownership. Before the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the law allowed a company to own up to 25 radio stations nationally. After that day, a radio conglomerate could own as many stations as it wanted. Many industry insiders speculated that the FCC changes would have a negative impact on the quality of music programming as well as news & cultural affairs. Now, nine years later, only a few radio conglomerates own most of the music stations in America. The largest one, Clear Channel Communications, owns over 1200 stations in 50 states.

The deregulation of radio station ownership was supposed to bring more diversity to local stations and allow them to reap the benefits of their larger well funded organization. It would seem, the opposite is actually now true. Many of the stations owned by Clear Channel are now automated, without staff personnel. They employ disc jockeys to provide voice tracking services. Voice tracking is when a disc jockey sits in a room and records all the announcement bumpers and breaks for days ahead, in one sitting. A computer integrates the voice tracking with pre programmed music to create the illusion that a disc jockey is live in the studio. Voice tracking is often used in secondary and triatchiary markets and sometimes implemented to handle major markets as well. The result of this kind of programming is significant cost savings for the radio station, but no live, local voice for the listener, though they may never know it.

Another unfortunate fact with conglomerate ownership is the familiarity of sound. Clear Channel radio stations within major markets use similar branding and programming techniques, so the sound around the country is highly formatted and dull.

It s hard to understand what the FCC was attempting to do with that legislation, but I'm betting it wasn't to build a monopoly for a radio conglomerate to control the majority of airwaves.

So, now that we ve created this problem, how is it going to change?

The answer lies with patience. Consider that in the last 10 years, radio station ownership has changed radically. In far less time, we ve built thousands of sophisticated independent internet radio stations, as well as two giant radio satellite networks. As soon as we master bringing the internet into our automobiles, there will be an infusion of unlimited radio stations available for everyone s enjoyment.

We may not be able to turn back time to 1995, but we most certainly can aim for greater diversity in commercial radio in the car, on the computer and at home.

This is Celia Hirschman with On The Beat For KCRW.