[Editor’s note: In the second of a two-part story, Xpress takes a look at the governmental and commercial forces that have changed the face of radio — both across the country and right here in Asheville.]
For some folks, turning on the radio is as much a habit as flipping on the lights.
But what you hear over the airwaves is no accident. Congress, the Federal Communications Commission and corporate interests have all played powerful roles in what the public can expect to hear over the airwaves that, incidentally, belong to them.
For example, if you ever wonder why you never see KISS Country nighttime DJ Travis Moon around town, it’s because he doesn’t live here. The Minneapolis broadcaster’s telecommuting is made possible by his employer, Clear Channel Communications, which owns WKSF and five other frequencies in the Asheville market — plus nearly 1,200 other stations nationwide. In turn, Clear Channel’s domination of the nation’s airwaves can be seen as part of the evolving deregulation efforts that started under the Reagan Administration.
And unless there’s a sea change at the federal level, we can expect to see even more deregulation and corporate media consolidation on the horizon — meaning even fewer independent voices and views.
For advocates of local, independent media, the only silver lining in the cloud appears to lie in the long-awaited licensing of a low-power FM station in Asheville, which could provide a forum for a few other voices to rise above the corporate din. (See sidebar, “Low power ahead.”)
Diversion, distraction and distortion
Even in the early days of radio broadcasting, a tug-of-war was taking place between commercial and noncommercial interests over who would control how much of the airwaves.
“With the advent of radio, there was great hope that [it] would be this powerful tool for enriching our political culture,” says Wally Bowen, executive director of Citizens for Media Literacy, a nonprofit, public-interest organization based in Asheville. “But instead, it’s been a powerful tool for diversion, distraction and distortion.”
In the 1920s, Bowen notes, there were more than 250 nonprofit radio stations, owned by universities, churches, labor unions and other civic organizations. At the time, one of the most powerful stations was WCFL, Chicago’s “Voice of Farmer-Labor.” But Wall Street saw radio’s potential to earn huge profits, as well as threaten corporate interests, if it could be used to organize farmers and workers, offers Bowen.
So a group of corporate allies formed the National Association of Broadcasters. Together with the American Bar Association, the NAB lobbied the government to regulate the airwaves, leading in 1927 to the creation of the Federal Radio Commission (the precursor to the FCC), notes Bowen in a guest commentary published in the Asheville Citizen-Times.
Aside from any political maneuverings, the airwaves at the time were a mess, says Don Grady, a communications professor at Elon University, just east of Greensboro.
“Conditions were chaotic,” notes Grady. “There was no control about who got to put a station on the air, and at what frequency and at what power.”
In short order, the FRC required all stations to apply for licenses and issued regulations favoring commercial stations, says Bowen. Indeed, the FRC “seemed, on almost every occasion, to show the back of its hand to educational institutions and to favor commercial broadcasters,” wrote Peter Fornatale and Joshua E. Mills in Radio in the Television Age (Overlook Press, 1980).
“Underneath all of this history is a very conscious and very calculated attempt by these large corporate interests to eliminate the possibility for radio to be used for grass-roots organizing,” Bowen declares.
Though a controversial bill was proposed in Congress in the early 1930s to reallocate radio licenses — reserving 25 percent to educational, religious, agricultural, labor cooperative and other nonprofit groups — the effort failed in the end, after it was voted down and handed off to the new FCC for further study, noted Erik Barnouw in his 1968 book, The Golden Web 12(Oxford University Press, 1968), one part of a three-volume set on the history of broadcasting.
That cleared the way for the Communications Act of 1934, which “represented almost a total victory for the status quo,” wrote Barnouw.
At the end of the ’30s, noncommercial radio barely had 30 low-power stations, which were mostly confined to daytime operations. A small comeback occurred in the 1940s, when the FCC awarded noncommercial radio a share of the first FM allocations, wrote Fornatale and Mills. Though the ’50s and early ’60s were quiet years for noncommercial radio, the Pacifica stations — nonprofit operations that weren’t affiliated with any church or school — began to turn that around with their alternative programming.
The Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 (which created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting) set the stage for nationalized public TV and radio. Community stations found a voice through the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, formed in 1975.
On the commercial side, local news took a hit in the in the 1980s, Bowen maintains, when the Reagan-era FCC (lobbied by the NAB) repealed the Fairness Doctrine, which required broadcasters to document how they served the “public interest, convenience and necessity.” With that stipulation gone, broadcasters streamlined by cutting their news staffs — relying more on news generated by their corporate parents, national news services and news lifted from the local daily newspaper, says Bowen.
The FCC also eased regulations on how many stations one company could own, as well as “cross ownership” rules on how many different types of media one company could own — all under the argument that regulations were encumbering a free marketplace of ideas. Though the deregulatory rally cry was “let a thousand flowers bloom,” Bowen thinks those blossoms look suspiciously uniform.
“What happened was, a thousand flowers bloomed, but it was a monoculture,” declares Bowen.
Congress’ adoption of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 marked another major step in broadcasting deregulation, when limits governing the number of radio stations that could be owned nationally by a single entity was repealed. Although no one company is supposed to serve more than 35 percent of the U.S. population, “whether or not that actually is being practiced, is not clear,” offers Grady, the Elon University professor. (Industry giant Clear Channel Communications boasts on its Web site that it broadcasts in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, with programming reaching more 110 million listeners every week.)
The ownership limit of four stations per market was also eased; now, depending on the size of the market, the cap stands at eight, according to the Broadcasting & Cable Yearbook 2001.
“It has caused the broadcasting industry to move into a period of conglomerization, with corresponding attempts to be more efficient in program services,” suggests Grady. “And the result of that is that you hear the same format and stations duplicated in markets all around the country.”
Technology has also played a role in how radio is evolving. Grady notes that large companies which own multiple stations are trying to be more efficient in programming, turning to syndicated shows and “voice tracking” — in which a DJ’s voice is digitally inserted between songs — to reduce the cost in local stations. Reduced costs and less personnel equals increased profits, he notes.
But the communications professor sees ethical problems with voice tracking: “They’re basically pretending in voice tracking that they’re local. And they talk about local things that are happening because they’re able to get that from local stations. I think that it is at best misleading and at worst deceptive. It really is. Because the unaware broadcast radio listener would assume that person is in the local market. I think it becomes an ethical question. And that is, you’re offering something, and you’re pretending it’s one thing and it’s something different.”
“In my opinion, broadcasters are no longer serving their local public in the same way that they used to, and in the way that I think that the FCC originally intended they serve their local audiences,” posits Grady. “These multiple-ownership facilities are basically radio factories, and there seems to be little genuine concern about serving local needs.”
Clear Channel’s dominance
The biggest beneficiary of the 1996 Telecom Act was Clear Channel Communications, according to an April 6 broadcast of On the Media, a program produced by WNYC in New York and distributed to public radio stations across the country.
In 1996, the company owned about 30 stations; now, it has accumulated more than 1,200 — becoming the largest operator of radio stations in the country. It’s also a huge player in the live-entertainment business, owning about 130 venues nationwide, plus about 700,000 outdoor advertising displays around the world, according to On the Media.
Its critics say Clear Channel has homogenized the sound of radio across the country, both by virtue of owning so many radio stations with the same format and by having the same DJs broadcast on multiple stations.
“DJs at major Clear Channel stations have access to the minute-by-minute schedules of music, commercials and talk breaks for stations from Cincinnati to San Diego, from Toledo to Tampa,” wrote John Kiesewetter in a 2000 report for The Cincinnati Enquirer. Echoing Grady’s comments about voice tracking, the report continued: “For each show, these DJs digitally record customized comments about local news, events, weather or concerts, mixing them with chatter about musicians, movies and other minutiae. The comments are inserted between music and commercials, and the result is a program that sounds as if it’s being produced locally — not from hundreds of miles away.”
And as the PBS program NOW with Bill Moyers reported in April, 47 of Clear Channel’s stations are known as “KISS-FM” (Asheville’s version is KISS Country) — all part of the company’s vision of creating a national radio franchise.
“Clear Channel spends a lot of money promoting the KISS-FM brand identity. That’s because the company sees it as being akin to say, McDonalds,” reported NPR’s Rick Karr. “Anywhere you go in the country, you know what to expect on a McDonalds menu. Likewise, in 47 cities where Clear Channel owns stations, you know what to expect from KISS-FM.”
Clear Channel in Asheville
In the Asheville market, Clear Channel commands six frequencies and five radio stations. The company bought Asheville’s oldest radio station, WWNC, and country-oriented WKSF (KISS Country) in 1999. Last November, it added former talk-format AM station WTZY and Waynesville’s adult-standard AM station WMXF — along with WQNS and WQNQ, which both simulcast as Rock 104.
Despite national-level criticism of Clear Channel, the company’s Asheville general manager, Diane Augram, and its operations manager, Jeff Davis, say that Clear Channel provides resources that improve its stations. That, they believe, allows local stations to have better resources, programming and tools that allow them to do their jobs better.
“If Jeff and I owned the radio station … chances are, we wouldn’t be able to afford all the bells and whistles,” says Augram. “It’s cost prohibitive, and has been for many years.”
The benefits of Clear Channel include the ability to call a sister station up for advice, explains Augram, adding: “We can utilize each other for a number of different things.”
Though not touted publicly, that includes using the Minneapolis DJ, Travis Moon, to broadcast on Asheville’s KISS Country in the evenings, confesses Davis (who also serves as KISS Country’s program director). Moon doesn’t mention of his far-flung location on his Asheville shift, nor does KISS Country’s Web site.
“He’s like any other employee,” Davis says, adding with a laugh, “He just doesn’t show up for staff meetings”
Comparing Moon to other part-time DJs, Davis continues, “It’s no different. There just happens to be a little more distance between Travis and the radio station.”
Davis supplies Moon with local information and Moon tailors his broadcasts to Asheville. The so-called “voice tracking” allows for a better use of limited resources, Davis says. (Instead of having to pay a DJ to play four hours of music interspersed with talk, a station will only have to pay someone to record the voice portion.)
“You can get somebody that might have better experience, or a better voice or do a better job overall,” he adds.
The station uses Moon at night, since that’s the time when fewer people are listening — reserving its local personalities for the prime daytime listening hours.
But KISS Country isn’t the only Asheville radio station that does voice-tracking; WOXL, billed as Oldies 96.5 also inserts the voices of two out-of-town DJs for some of its nighttime programming. (See “The 800-pound gorilla” in the June 5 Xpress.)
At the local Clear Channel offices, Augram would rather focus on what she calls the “synergy” created by the company owning more than one type of station, which she says means more options for advertisers.
“Ultimately, it’s about serving the community. That’s a radio station’s biggest job,” says Augram. “They allow us to do it even better.”
Big companies are always going to catch criticism, she says, simply by virtue of their size.
Though Bowen points out that WWNC dropped the hour-long news programs it formerly ran at noon, 4 and 5 p.m., Davis insists that the March change doesn’t mean they’ve sacrificed quality or quantity.
The station has actually beefed up its local news staff to five, Davis notes. And rather than “news blocks,” the station runs a combination of local and national news in shorter segments at the top and bottom of each hour throughout the day.
The old “news blocks” contained a lot of information, but much of it was probably disposable, suggests Davis. With what he sees as the unnecessary info stripped away, “We probably do as much or a little bit more news than we did before,” he asserts.
Serving the community was the main reason behind swapping the formats of news/talk-oriented WTZY (renamed WPEK) and country-themed WWNC back in March says Augram, — a move that prompted mostly critical letters to the editor of the Asheville Citizen-Times. But since WPEK only broadcasts during the day, it became obvious — in light of Sept. 11 — that the public would be better served by a news/talk format available at all hours, Augram says. And that, she notes, was a local decision.
“Contrary to what people may believe, Clear Channel doesn’t come to Asheville, N.C. and say, ‘Do this, this and this,'” insists Augram, adding that the company doesn’t have the time to do that for its stations, anyway. “It’s based on the community and the needs,” she says.
Augram and Davis also point out that tiny stations who don’t have the backing of a company such as Clear Channel may end up picking up much of their programming from satellite, anyway.
“We’re crazy if we don’t listen to the people in WNC,” concludes Augram.
All together now
So what’s next for broadcasting?
Unless somebody stops it, Bowen and national media scholar Robert McChesney see more deregulation ahead.
The 1996 Telcom Act represented “another incremental step to higher media concentration,” declares Bowen, “but what’s about to happen will far eclipse the consolidation we’ve seen in the past.”
Grady suggests that the thinking at the FCC level is that because there are an increasing number of media outlets available, it’s no longer necessary to regulate broadcasters so strictly.
“The scarcity question doesn’t exist anymore,” offers Grady.
On Feb. 19, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia canceled a couple of long-standing government regulations limiting the size of media companies that use the public airwaves, write McChesney and John Nichols in “Turning the Tide: It’s time to fight the Enronization of the media,” published in the April 15 issue of In These Times.
The regulations prevented one company from owning TV stations and cable franchises in the same market, and the other limited the number of TV stations a single company could own nationally. The court sent the TV-station-ownership rule back to the FCC for review, which McChesney and Nichols call “great news” for media corporations.
“Even before the appeals court ruling, FCC Chairman Michael Powell was working to relax or eliminate these and other limits on media monopoly — including the last barriers to a single corporation gaining dominance of print, broadcast and cable communications in a single market,” they write. “Powell says he is determined to enact his ‘reforms’ as quickly as possible.”
“With a go-ahead from a federal judge and preparations underway at the deregulation-happy Federal Communications Commission to remove the last threads of the regulatory safety net, some of the most powerful corporations in the world are planning to build the sort of monopolies imagined by the authors of dystopian novels,” write McChesney and Nichols.