What's Left of the Dial

One nonprofit helped save radio. Sort of. For now.

Again, a small victory.

FCC commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, the other Democrat on the commission who opposes Powell and deregulation (Michael Copps is the other), says the Future of Music Coalition's study made a "huge contribution" to the FCC's decision not to further deregulate radio. In fact, he says, "it changed the whole course of the dialogue around here," because it was a rare example of a group providing a substantial study that directly refuted FCC studies that said, Hey, consolidation's a good thing.

"What Future of Music did was very rare, because generally not-for-profits are interest groups that don't have the resources and time to do something in a comprehensive way," Adelstein says. "One day, other groups like this will look back and wish they had done more. The Future of Music study highlighted and heightened the issue of huge deregulation so that the majority [of commissioners] couldn't stomach deregulating radio any further. Their study was profound because it hit on something we had on the record. If a lot of our studies had been trumped by other nonprofits, it might have changed the whole discussion."

Radio is a sad salvation to Jenny Toomey, the founder of the Future of Music Coalition, which prepared the study that determined deregulation had killed radio.
Charles Steck
Radio is a sad salvation to Jenny Toomey, the founder of the Future of Music Coalition, which prepared the study that determined deregulation had killed radio.

Adelstein, a former senior legislative aide to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, says that even before he was sworn in as a commissioner in December 2002, people around the office had told him the FMC report was an "important piece of work." That's because it specifically contradicted a FCC report from September of last year that said consolidation really had diversified the kind of music getting played on the radio. That's totally nuts, as anyone who's heard 50 Cent looping in constant rotation on pop and urban stations will gladly tell you.

The FMC report proved, with hard data and not mere anecdotal evidence, that radio companies might offer plenty of formats--with names like Active Rock, Alternative, Triple-A, Hot Adult Contemporary, Urban and Contemporary Hits Rhythmic--but they're all playing the same songs. Clear Channel can add all the formats it wants to the alphabet soup, but you're still getting the same product--the same handful of artists signed to the same handful of major labels--no matter where you turn the commercial-radio dial.

"In the U.S. you have a number of corporations all competing within the exact same formats to attract the exact same demographics," Toomey says. "One of the things we could do was remove from Powell some of the things he was saying. With that empirical data, it was hard for him to contradict us."

But it was more than just the report that got the FCC to back off, for now. It was the public relations campaign waged by the FMC and other activist organizations that cast blindingly bright light on the shadowy world of Big Broadcasting--including the Media Access Project, the Center for Public Integrity and the Recording Artists' Coalition. They've waged a publicity war on Clear Channel, all but destroying its image with listeners and politicians who want nothing more to do with the company's death march across the nation's airwaves.

Lowry Mays has done nothing to help his cause: When he spoke before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, he insisted that "deregulation has benefited listeners as well as owners," even citing studies, including one from Bears Stearns, that actually proved the opposite. And in recent months the company's had to defend itself against allegations of payola, cornering the concert market, secretly sponsoring pro-war rallies and leading demolitions of Dixie Chicks CDs following Natalie Maines' anti-Bush comments in London last March.

Things have gotten so bad that Clear Channel in recent months has hired two PR firms to repair its image. One is Brainerd Communicators Inc., the New York City-based firm that also reps, among other media giants, AOL Time Warner, Knight Ridder and Vivendi Universal. Among myriad services Brainerd offers is crisis counseling: "We advise clients on management of sensitive news, develop key messages and public statements to address specific issues," reads the site, "and work closely with journalists as the story is shaped."

Still, Clear Channel doesn't have much to worry about. Even if the new Arbitron system determines the company or its mammoth competitors are over the limit in some markets, they can still keep their stations, since they've been grandfathered in, Adelstein says. Or, hell, let's say Clear Channel decides to sell off a cluster of stations to small, minority-owned business, which the FCC wants badly to happen. First off, these clusters will be so expensive no one is likely to touch them. But if someone does raise the capital, three years from now there's nothing to stop Viacom or Clear Channel or any other conglomerate from buying back this cluster.

"This is the most ludicrous thing," Adelstein says. "They can sell to anybody. There are no restrictions...So what do you think's going to happen? They can sell to small business, who will park the stations for three years and sell to Clear Channel. What's that going to do? Bid up these small clusters even more, because there will be tremendous market value in three years. It's unfortunate the way the whole thing played out."

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