Caution: old pfart mode
Ross Hunter <xhunter@...>
Here's a link to an interesting broadcasting article in Sunday's
It sounds like Phil Goodwin at WJMA is a bigger news staff that all
the Clear Channel stations in Washington!
If you want to read the article here, it's below.
Sounds Familiar For a Reason
By Marc Fisher
Sunday, May 18, 2003; Page B01
Technology begets wonders, such as radio talk show host Brian Wilson,
who, thanks to satellites and the Internet, sits on his farm north of
Baltimore and talks California politics with listeners on San
Francisco's KSFO. Wilson wakes each day, fires up his Web browser and
reads the morning San Francisco Chronicle online for the latest news
from clear across the country. He's so good that his listeners could
be forgiven for thinking that he's in the City by the Bay rather than
in a bedroom in Maryland. This is what passes for local radio these
Satellites and digital recording also make it possible for oldies
deejay Tom Kelly to finish up his afternoon air shift on WBIG in
Rockville, then sit down in front of a microphone and record his next
job, as JJ Jackson, the overnight oldies jock on KQQL in Minneapolis.
And no one's the wiser -- except, of course, Clear Channel
Communications Inc., which owns both stations. You do have to give Clear Channel a hand for this wink and nudge on the KQQL Web site:
"Actually, JJ is perhaps the most 'there' overnight presence in Twin
Cities FM radio."
Deregulation in the media industries begets wonders, too, producing
not only deejays with multiple personalities, but multiple stations
with single corporate identities. Ever since Congress eased limits on
media ownership in 1996, companies such as Clear Channel and Viacom
Inc. have gobbled up hundreds of radio stations, threatening
diversity. In many cities, a single company controls a majority of
radio advertising revenue and makes most of the programming
decisions. Since 1996, Clear Channel alone went from 40 stations to
more than 1,200; add the company's prominence in the concert
promotion and outdoor advertising businesses and you have
unprecedented influence on the nation's popular music.
The combination of technological change and freedom from government
regulation has not liberated owners to do more with less; rather,
companies have lunged at the chance to do far less and rake in much
Come June 2, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is expected
to approve new rules that would allow even more consolidation in the
media: TV networks would be permitted to buy more stations than they
are now, a media company would be allowed to own as many as three TV
stations in one city, and restrictions on cross-ownership between
newspapers and broadcast stations would be lifted.
After an expected binge of station and network sales, companies with
the deepest pockets could assert control over a region's major radio
stations, cable TV system, Internet service providers, a couple of TV
stations and perhaps the local paper, too. Synergy, that
much-lampooned dream of 1990s media boosters, could finally happen in
a big way, with one company providing news and entertainment via all
media from a single newsroom. The result would hardly be a boon to
newsgathering; rather, it would result in diminished public service.
FCC Chairman Michael Powell and other champions of further
deregulation have taken the infinite capacity of the Internet as
rationale for scrapping much of the remaining regulation of the
airwaves. Does the FCC need to worry about media diversity when
technology now lets any Jane Q. Citizen get on the Web and blog to
her heart's content?
In a word, yes. The 1990s-boom-era rhetoric has come up empty, and
Powell knows it. Despite the infinite promise of the Internet, cable
TV, digital and satellite radio and whatever other marvels may lie
ahead, the reality of corporate consolidation has been a serious
diminution in the variety of opinions, news reports, musical choices
and cultural offerings in both the commercial and public media.
Greater concentration of ownership in TV would reinforce a remarkable
oligopoly in which five companies -- Viacom/CBS, Disney/ABC, NBC, AOL
Time Warner and News Corp./Fox -- boast 75 percent of primetime TV
The test case for consolidation has been radio. Ever since the 1996
easing of restrictions on ownership , big media companies have faced
off against musicians, activists and some of the few remaining mom
and pop station owners. The media companies say the airwaves offer a
more bountiful selection of artistic riches than ever before and that
they have brought big-city talent to backwater communities, replacing
farm reports, swap shops and amateurish deejays.
But listeners hear the nation's broadcasters pressing the culture to
its lowest common denominator in a cynical money grab. Rush Limbaugh,
Howard Stern and Tom Joyner are piped into your hometown by satellite.
The big companies do offer variety -- of a sort. In Washington, Clear
Channel introduced a new format, Jam'n Oldies, featuring disco and danceable R&B of the 1970s; the station flopped, but executives say
that sort of innovation wouldn't have happened unless one firm had
eight outlets in one city to experiment with.
But in the past few years, Washington listeners have lost far more
music choices than they have gained, on both commercial and public
radio: standards (WGAY, the only station in the market that aimed at
older listeners, tried a series of failed formats); jazz (WDCU was
sold to C-SPAN, which uses the frequency as a prototype of a
satellite-delivered national audio service); bluegrass (WAMU dropped
much of its local music programming to serve up more news and talk
produced for a national audience); and classical (WETA dropped some
daily music offerings to simulcast news programs already heard on
In city after city, Clear Channel points to formats it has added --
hip-hop here, alternative rock there. But critics contend that even
when the big companies add program formats, the music they play is
the same old stuff. A study by the Future of Music Coalition, a
Washington-based artists group, found that different formats feature
almost identical playlists, sharing as much as 76 percent of the
songs they play.
More important, the radio chain -- saddled with $8 billion in debt
from its '90s acquisition spree -- has cut costs and increased ad
rates to squeeze operating profits from its stations. The chain has
replaced local deejays and news announcers with jocks who sit in
Phoenix or Denver and record shows for stations thousands of miles
away, tossing in a few local references for verisimilitude ("Hey,
tough day on I-10! How about those Bucs!"). News operations have been
eliminated or outsourced. And programming that once mirrored local
standards now takes on the coarseness of New York and Los Angeles,
where stunningly vulgar sex talk wins big ratings.
If deregulation was supposed to let a thousand flowers bloom, most of
the garden appears to be in Clear Channel's yard. The company is
regularly accused of limiting playlists, favoring artists who tour
through the company's concert wing. (Clear Channel denies any
connection between its concert operations and airplay.)
But so what? How many listeners know or care that their favorite pop
or rap station is owned by a huge Texas conglomerate? So what if the
deejay is talking about Richmond but sitting in Arizona?
"The fact is we're now a healthier industry and you have more
choices," says Alfred Liggins III, chief executive of Radio One, the
Lanham-based company that started with Washington's black talk
station, WOL, and grew into the nation's largest minority-owned radio
company. "Is it tougher for the little guy, the mom and pop owner?
Yeah. But that little guy could not provide the same level of talent
and service. There aren't 10 Jay Lenos. Why wouldn't you leverage
such a talent? Technology allows you to do it, so why wouldn't you?"
But there is a downside to diluting the localism that has given radio
its distinctive edge since the dawn of the Top 40 era in the 1950s.
Radio for decades played a crucial role in building community -- from
deejays visiting high schools to run record hops to news departments
that provided essential coverage of storms, riots, elections and
Consolidation and cutbacks in local staffing have eliminated many of
those functions. The prime example wielded against the industry stems
from an accident last year in Minot, N.D., where Clear Channel owns
all six commercial stations. When a train derailment in the middle of
the night released a frightening cloud of anhydrous ammonia, Minot
police sought to notify the citizenry of the crisis. They called
KCJB, the station designated as the local emergency broadcaster, but
no one was home; the station was being run by computer, automatically
passing along Clear Channel programming from another city.
Clear Channel argues that only a technical glitch prevented word from
getting through. But glitches aside, the six stations now have only
one news employee among them.
Even in Washington, where Clear Channel's stations do offer news
headlines and WRC relays the audio of CNN Headline News, there is not
one reporter gathering news on the street. When the planes struck on
9/11, several of Washington's FM stations had nowhere to turn but to
TV; they merely fed the sound from those newscasts.
Maybe it's true that listeners neither notice nor mind. In a Pew
Center for the People and the Press survey earlier this year,
slightly more Americans said letting companies own more stations
would make no difference than said such a move would have a negative
impact. But radio executives know that listeners don't pay close
attention to the source of what they hear, and that has freed the
industry to economize on virtually every detail of programming.
Traffic announcers on most big-city stations can often be heard on
several stations in the same city, using different names or tones of
voice to keep listeners from noticing. For example, Beverly Farmer,
who's delivered traffic reports under her own name on several
D.C.-area radio stations, has also done stints as "Alex Richards" on
WMZQ, "Vera Bruptly" on WJFK and "Ginny Bridges" and "Lee McKenzie"
on other stations.
That showbiz stunt is one thing for traffic reports -- what
difference does it make who tells you that I-95 is jammed at the
Mixing Bowl? -- but it raises tougher questions when it comes to news
coverage. Yet the nation's largest traffic reporting company, Metro
Networks (owned by a division of Viacom, one of the largest media
conglomerates), is trying to win the job of handling news coverage
for hundreds of music stations. With rare exceptions such as all-news
stations in big cities, radio news has been entirely outsourced, and
largely to one company. Even in Washington, it is rare for any radio
reporter to show up at news events other than those from all-news
WTOP, talk WMAL or occasionally public radio's WAMU.
Washington is a big enough market that its stations still provide
hours of locally originated programming. But some popular programs no
longer have much local content: WKYS's popular morning man, Russ
Parr, used to joke about Hyattsville and comment on the shenanigans
of the District government; now that his program is fed to stations
around the country, the humor is more generic, the content less
local. The same is true of Don and Mike, the bad boys of WJFK's
evening drive-time show; Don Geronimo still growls about Fairfax
traffic from time to time, but both hosts now spice their show with
plenty of references to Philadelphia and other cities where their
syndicated program also airs.
Again, listeners don't complain, but the lack of complaint is hardly
an endorsement. Radio listenership has been in decline for years.
Surely the emotional connection to radio that was a crucial part of
the identity of the generation that tucked transistor radios under
the pillow and graduated to stereo systems in time for the
alternative rock revolution is all but gone. And while local
character has declined, the commercial load has crept up to as much
as 24 minutes an hour on some stations.
As I work on a book on radio's evolution over the past half-century,
I hear almost daily from radio executives who lament what has become
of their business and complain about how hard it is to offer creative
programming when managers must run four stations at once and deejays
are required to be inoffensive and unnoticeable. Even within Clear
Channel, station executives privately bemoan what artists now loudly
protest, a system in which big radio takes advantage of its market
power by requiring record companies to pay for their songs to be on
In his recent song "The Last DJ," Tom Petty sings, " . . . there goes
your freedom of choice/There goes the last human voice/There goes the
But the arguments against further consolidating ownership of the
media are not simply nostalgia for a time when deejays served as
guides to cultural shifts.
There is also a powerful rational objection to a new wave of
consolidation, one that fits the FCC's penchant for justifying policy
decisions with economic and legal argument: The enormous debt and
cost-cutting that follow corporate consolidation has produced a need
for safe, bland and cheap programming -- and declining consumer
interest. Chain ownership has diminished both the diversity and
vibrancy of discussion and debate -- and that is what the FCC is charged to protect on the public's airwaves. As Justice Louis
Brandeis once said, "We can have a democratic society or we can have
the concentration of great wealth in the hands of the few. We cannot
Marc Fisher is a columnist for The Washington Post's Metro section.
He is working on a book about radio's evolution since the advent of
© 2003 The Washington Post Company