Nothing terribly new here, but we can’t hear enough times how badly commercial radio blows chunks, nor why. And the media companies and the FCC wonder why people are upset about loosening the ownership rules even more? Blind, deaf and dumb:
- I grew up glued to radio and was present at the creation of legendary album-format stations like WMMR in Philadelphia and WXRT in Chicago. These stations played rich blends of rock, pop and jazz, and sometimes featured local bands. (This wide-ranging format enriched the collective musical taste and paid dividends by producing ever more varied strains of popular music.) Commercials were typically kept to between 8 and 12 minutes per hour, and 20 minutes or more could pass before the announcer broke in to give the station’s call letters.
This format was profitable, but not on the money-raining scale required since Wall Street got wise to the radio game. Faced with pressure from investors and more corporate debt than some nations, the megacompanies that acquire a hundred stations each must squeeze every cent out of every link in the chain. They do this by dismissing the local staff and loading up squalling commercials and promotional spots that can take up as much as 30 minutes per hour during morning “drive time.”
The corporate owners then put pressure on their remaining rivals – and often force them to sell out – by promoting national advertising packages that allow commercials to be broadcast on several stations, or all over the country, at once. Disc jockeys are often declared expendable and let go. Where they remain in place, they are figureheads who spin a narrow and mind-numbing list of songs that have been market-tested to death, leaving stations that sound the same from coast to coast.
Critics have focused on the way corporatized radio fails to cover local news and on free-speech issues, like the one that emerged when a country band, the Dixie Chicks, was booted from corporate air for criticizing the president over the war in Iraq. If the stations find the Dixie Chicks too challenging to tolerate, it’s easy to imagine them marginalizing genuinely controversial news and programming.
Corporate radio’s treatment of the Dixie Chicks argues against those who wish to remove all remaining federal limits on corporate ownership – not just of radio, but of television as well. The dangers posed by concentrated ownership go beyond news and censorship issues, to the heart of popular culture itself.
….Radio stations where unknown bands might once have come knocking at the door no longer even have doors. They have become drone stations, where a once multifarious body of music has been pared down and segmented in bland formats, overlaid with commercials. As record companies scramble to replicate the music that gets airplay, pop music is turning in on itself and flattening out.
Those of us who are breaking with radio are saddened to leave the community of listeners to which we have belonged for most of our lives. But we realize as well that the vitality of the medium, like youth, is lost and forever behind us.