What's Left of the Dial

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

She does not deserve all the credit, and she would not be comfortable accepting all the thanks. She knows she's but one soldier among many--a commanding officer, yes, but also a grunt slogging through the muck and minefields. For years, she was a musician like any other, writing and recording and touring in search of an audience. She was more involved than most, as political organizer and co-owner of a label from 1990 till '98, but she struggled like most to be heard over the racket of a music-industry machine designed to make the big bigger and the small disappear. Those days are long gone.

Today, Jenny Toomey's still a musician signed to a small label, but her voice--that of a torch-song singer with flaming red hair to match--now carries much further than to the back of the club. It resonates with People of Power, government officials in Washington, D.C., who know nothing of her days fronting punk-rock bands like Geek and Tsunami and might be afraid of her if they did. To the men and women who work on Capitol Hill, Jenny Toomey is simply the executive director of the Future of Music Coalition, the organization that helped convince the Federal Communications Commission that government had ruined radio and that enough was, by God, enough.

On June 2, the FCC made it easier for media companies to own television, newspapers and radio stations in a single market--despite the protests of 750,000 citizens who took the time to attend public hearings and write the commission. Before June 2, it looked all but certain FCC chairman Michael Powell, son of Colin, would also give Clear Channel Communications and other radio giants what they wanted: more radio stations. Seven years ago, Congress passed the Telecommunications Act, which let media corporations own up to eight stations in major markets. That wasn't enough. They wanted 10 at the very least--12 was more like it. And they thought they would get what they want. They always do.

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.

After all, in 1995 San Antonio-based Clear Channel Communications owned a measly 25 stations in the United States. But after Congress passed its act, the radio giant devoured some 1,200 signals across the country. Still, the beast was starving, and Powell was all prepared to feed it. Powell believes regulation is bad for business and had the FCC's two Republican commissioners, Kathleen Abernathy and Kevin Martin, on his side. And, hey, his daddy works for President Bush, who's good pals with Clear Channel chairman and CEO Lowry Mays. Slam dunk, no?

No.

As it turns out, Toomey, this little punk-rocker from the wrong side of the D.C. tracks, stood in the way of radio's wrecking ball. And all she came armed with was a 95-page report, plus copious appendices, that proved what a menace Clear Channel, Viacom and about a dozen other media giants had become to the very listening public the FCC was charged with serving.

Toomey says the Future of Music Coalition had no idea the FCC was about to rewrite the media-ownership rule book when it began working two years ago with another D.C.-based nonprofit, Media Access Project, on its radio consolidation report, titled Radio Deregulation: Has it Served Citizens and Musicians? With a $100,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, received in November 2001, the FMC simply set out to document the disastrous effects the 1996 Telecommunications Act had on the radio landscape--chiefly, how Clear Channel and Viacom now control 42 percent of all U.S. radio listeners and pocket 45 percent of industry revenues, how the so-called explosion of radio formats actually shrank the diversity of music being played on the radio, how news programming has become homogenized and sterilized and how the consolidation of radio was drastically reducing the number of broadcasters who live and work in Your Town Here.

In the end, Toomey made her point and got her way: The FCC refused to raise the ceiling and kept the number of stations a company could own in a single major market at eight.

"Radio is a victory--a small one, but a win we will take for now," Toomey says. "It's also a mixed victory. We prevented further erosion of the limits on the number of radio stations a single company can own, but it's also just preventing further disaster and further problems. These days, in the context of the most massive weakening of media-ownership regulations in history, that should be considered a victory. We need to take victories where we have them."

In other words, it could have been a hell of a lot worse. Which didn't do anything to soothe Clear Channel: The company, president Mark Mays said, was "deeply disappointed" by the ruling. (Mark is Lowry's son.)

What irks Lowry and Mark even more is that the commission also changed the way it calculates ownership. Used to be it was based on strength and overlap of signal: Small towns getting most of their radio from nearby big cities were counted the same way as big markets. According to a recent New York Timespiece, tiny Ithaca, New York, was considered to have 32 commercial stations, with most emanating from Manhattan. But on June 4, the FCC decided to use Arbitron ratings as a way of measuring how many stations a company owns in a market, which ostensibly shrinks the size of the market and raises the number of stations a company owns in a market. And "under the new method of counting," the paper reports, "Ithaca is considered to have only nine commercial stations, and any single company can own no more than five."

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."

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."

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.

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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