What's Left of the Dial

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

There is the slightest chance that Senate and House committees can undo what the FCC has done. Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, has already begun hearings in hopes of revoking the rules allowing for expanded TV and newspaper ownership. "We're all in agreement too much concentration is unhealthy," McCain told the commission two weeks ago, and the Senate Judiciary Committee is also scheduling hearings for the end of July. But if anything is to come of these hearings, Toomey and Adelstein say, it will be up to Regular Folk to keep pressuring politicians.

"If we do this right, we keep people engaged," Toomey says. "This is about whether we really have free speech...This win didn't happen by accident. It happened because people get radio as a failed experiment in consolidation and because we had the numbers. Now we have to keep them engaged, and we do that by reminding them radio is not a total loss."

In the end, you may say of all this: Big deal. You have your satellite radio, your broadband connection; you believe downloading bootleg MP3s is appropriate revenge. But ultimately the radio waves belong to you and me, not any billionaire who can afford them. Radios are cheap and ubiquitous, but only a relative few can afford an iPod, XM Radio, high-speed Web access, a computer. Not everyone can bypass the system because the system is all they have, be they audience member or musician trying to get into the heads and pocketbooks of more than the privileged few who can afford to escape what Mays and Powell have to offer, which ain't much and is shrinking further every day.

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.

The results of what the FCC and Congress, in 1996, have allowed are bigger than just homogenized, bar-code playlists and no local jocks to take your requests. It will lead to the ultimate devastation of an art form, Toomey insists, when musicians who might have gotten on radio before 1996 can no longer make mortgage payments or get insurance or feed their families and are forced to give up on music. "It's always been about the music," she says, something repeated by the FCC's Adelstein, himself a musician who last played in public in January, at the Future of Music Coalition's D.C. conference. There, with Lester Chambers, he performed a most prophetic song: "People Get Ready."

"You think about some of the great movements in music in this country: Motown in Detroit, grunge in Seattle, hip-hop in New York, Sun Records down in Memphis," he says. "These people got played on local radio first, and they weren't things that were familiar to listeners; they were new and they were challenging, but eventually they caught on, they caught fire--not only in that region, but around the country and around the world. Are we now preventing that from happening? Is the next Elvis just going to throw his guitar down and quit because he can't get played on the radio because he's different? That's why we want a diversity of viewpoints being expressed across the airwaves and a diversity of owners that leads to the maximum ability of people to get heard, especially local musicians. But we've moved in the opposite direction, and the implications go beyond just this industry."

Additional research provided by Mary Monigold.

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