- Among radio broadcasters across the country, Hilary Duff’s sugary pop tune “I Can’t Wait” has fallen completely flat. A single station — in Albuquerque — has played the song just one time, and that was back in September.
There is, however, a glaring exception: the Radio Disney empire. On its 52 stations nationwide, “I Can’t Wait” is ranked No. 1, with Duff getting more airplay than Britney Spears. In Los Angeles, Disney’s KDIS-AM (710) has played the song a whopping 850 times during the last six weeks.
So why is Radio Disney in such a hurry to play “I Can’t Wait”?
Critics in the industry think they have an answer: Duff is under contract with Buena Vista Records, which is a sister company of Radio Disney, which is affiliated with the Disney Channel, which telecasts “Lizzie McGuire,” which stars Duff.
Many question whether the cozy relationship among the players — all owned by Burbank-based entertainment giant Walt Disney Co. — violates arm’s-length broadcasting rules of the Federal Communications Commission.
Although some of those rules have become murkier with sweeping consolidation in radio, media watchdogs say Disney and other broadcasters are testing the limits.
“This stuff clearly violates the spirit — if not the letter — of the law,” said media expert Robert McChesney, a professor of communications at University of Illinois. “It undermines the integrity of the public airwaves, corroding editorial space with commercial factors. It’s very damaging.”
Robin Jones, head of programming at Radio Disney, said the radio chain does not give preferential treatment to acts with business ties to its corporate parent.
“I could see where someone might misconstrue that there was a conflict of interest with this song,” Jones said. “But Hilary Duff was truly driven to No. 1 by kid requests … not by what label” her song is on.
- in the mid-1980s, the FCC decided the disclosure regulation was “unnecessarily restrictive.” The agency believed market forces would correct abuses naturally. Stations that plugged their own products, the theory went, would be abandoned by listeners, who would turn to a plethora of other choices on the dial.
The problem is that those choices no longer exist, and the rules have not been updated to reflect the effect of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which eliminated restrictions on broadcast mergers.
“The tremendous consolidation of recent years has made the entire landscape less competitive,” FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps said. “I understand the arguments for synergy. But I think it’s time that broadcasters start taking their public interest responsibilities more seriously. And I think the FCC needs to be more vigilant in monitoring and enforcing the laws.”
Today’s broadcast environment is dominated by corporate giants such as Clear Channel Communications Inc. It controls more than 1,200 stations, many in the same city.