We got a sneak preview last week on the Future of Music Coalition report on the the consolidation of commercial radio. The report came out yesterday, and honorary Blogcritic Brad Hill has penetrating commentary on his site, Digital Songstream (always worth a visit):
- Study: Effects of Radio Consolidation
The Future of Music Coalition, a non-profit think tank, has released its massive study on the effects of radio consolidation on musicians and listeners. Meant to measure the success or failure of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the study ferociously concludes that deregulation of radio station ownership rules has damaged the ability of musicians to gain airplay, and likewise damaged listeners’ access to programming choice. The first argument is brought home without room for doubt, but the second is undermined by the study’s support survey.
This study represents a great deal of methodical and fastidious work, and the FMC should be congratulated for its integrity, thoroughness, and methodological resourcefulness. The study documents the extent of radio consolidation, as both market share and format overlap, using its formidable statistics to present a case that musicians are harmed.
No argument there. Like bricks in a wall of evidence, the FMC cements graph upon graph in a devastating portrayal of a radio oligopoly that controls and restricts programming to an astonishing degree. Not only do a mere four gigantic broadcasting consolidators control at least 70 percent of the music we hear in 98 percent of the radio markets, but there is far less distinction among the radio formats than you might believe after a casual spin along the dial. Huge overlaps in the playlists of stations presumably dedicated to different music genres exist.
The resulting, unavoidable picture is of an industry dominated by a small handful of “gatekeepers”–executive decision-makers in a few companies who decide what America hears over the airwaves. Considering that the airwaves themselves are (theoretically) owned by the citizenry, the result of deregulation in 1996 appears to be exactly contrary to the public good.
But what does the public think? This is where the study trips over its own data, and fails to persuasively make a case of damage to the listening marketplace. The study is underpinned by a survey conducted by the Behavior Research Center in May, 2002. A close read of the response breakdowns indicates that:
1) Commercial FM radio is overwhelmingly popular.
2) Listeners are not flocking to alternatives (LPFM, NPR, college) available in most markets.
3) The most-cited reason for decreased listening is lack of time, not dissatisfaction with programming.
4) The most-cited reason for increased listening is that respondents “like what’s on.”
5) The least-cited reason for station-hopping is “To avoid repetition in music.”
It doesn’t exactly paint a picture of festering dissatisfaction with the status quo. This point was raised in a conference call immediately following the study’s release. An FMC rep said that survey respondents were easily prodded into saying they would prefer less consolidation, more programming variety, and better radio generally. “They can imagine something better,” she commented. That’s probably true, but complacency doesn’t amount to a mandate for a new radio marketplace.
The concern is that the national Association of Broadcasters (NAB), representing Clear Channel, Viacom, and the other big radio consolidators, might easily use the survey results to argue that the study is presuming marketplace damage where there is, in fact, none. “Bigger is better, and people are happy” is a mantra that, given the power of spin, will easily survive this study.
If so, the shame is on listeners, because radio consolidation does indeed denature our musical culture with devastating and rapacious effect. With small Webcasting surviving this week by the skin of its teeth, one can’t help wondering whether the vast legions of glassy-eyed listeners, benumbed by force-fed culture, even care.
Thanks Brad – a troubling picture indeed for we musical elitists. Here’s part of the issue: radio for many teens and young adults is a social rather than aesthetic matter. They listen to know what the hits are, to know the songs they are supposed to know, and since they know the songs they can also sing along. My daughter admits she sings along to songs she doesn’t even like because she knows them.
Don’t tell me repetition and social pressure don’t work, especially among the most social age range.