Shortwaving Radio

Proposed legislation by the U.S. Senate aims to deter the spreading radio empire. Good luck.

"The radio station says, 'Gee, you gave your concert to our sister company's competitor, so we don't feel much desire to promote that artist's music anymore,'" says Cary Sherman, president of the Recording Industry Association of America, the chief lobbying arm of the major labels.

Feingold testified before the commerce committee that since 1996, ticket prices at concerts have outpaced inflation by 50 percent. He blames Clear Channel. "My number-one concern is the ability of a company to buy up all the major entertainment elements in a community and cross-leverage that ownership, as I'm afraid Clear Channel has done too many times," Feingold explained in a recent interview.

Is it any wonder Duncan's American Radio reported in September that radio listening was at a 27-year low? "Whether it's consolidation, independent promotion or the combination of the two, it's affecting musical choice," says Silverman. "Everything sounds the same."

Senator Feingold hopes to woo McCain, shown here enjoying the deregulated product.
Timothy Archibald
Senator Feingold hopes to woo McCain, shown here enjoying the deregulated product.

The radio lobby likes to argue that consolidation has resulted in greater format diversity, but what does that matter when they all play the same twenty songs? "When you only have two or three major players, it tends to be like the Bloods and the Crips: They divide up the town and don't interfere with each other's turf," says Robert Unmacht, a Nashville-based radio consultant.

More alarmingly, radio's local touch, which once made it the hottest of all electronic media, has faded. Some things aren't missed until they're gone. FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, a Democrat, tells of recent embarrassments in North Dakota and North Carolina in which local disasters had residents calling their local radio stations for more information, only to find nothing was there to answer except the automated DJ.

Yet even the live disc jockeys lack the personality of a bygone era, according to Scottsdale, Arizona-based radio consultant and onetime Inside Radio editor Jerry Del Calliano. "Out here in Phoenix and Scottsdale, the jocks come on the air and sound like we're almost waking them up by listening to them.

"They can't package the product in a compelling way, and the product that they're packaging sucks as badly as what they do on the air," he says later.

Even Major Healy couldn't get this genie back in the bottle, something Feingold acknowledges with a qualifier: "I think we can prevent the hemorrhaging," he says.

That is, if his bill can even pass. "Let's face it, we have a Congress and a president that don't believe in regulating the private marketplace. On the other hand, it's hard for anybody to support the idea that the public airwaves are not serving the public interest," says Sherman.

And despite the sketchy results of the 1996 changes, Powell is considering stroking TV and newspapers with a similar deregulation stance. Powell has gone on record as saying he believes ownership restrictions are increasingly irrelevant in a world rife with Internet, cable and wireless-communication options.

Imagine that Gannett and Clear Channel owned every single media outlet in town. "Suppose, for the sake of argument, that we make a mistake ... the American people need to know the stakes of the game and that they own [the airwaves] to begin with," says Copps. "It's theirs."

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