What's Left of the Dial

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.

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?


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 Times piece, 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."

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky