Farewell to Radio by Robert W. McChesney
Published in the March 2001 issue of the Silicon Alley Reporter
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Radio is the quintessential people's medium. It is the least expensive
medium to produce a quality product and the least expensive medium to
receive. It is ideally suited to local, decentralized content and
popular participation in production. Due to low production costs, radio
is also ideal for creative innovation. Nor does it does not
require any technical expertise or even literacy to use radio
effectively. Even in the Age of the Internet, by all accounts good old
radio is going to be around for a long time still, at least as long as
there are automobiles. And in places like Africa and parts of Asia,
radio will be the dominant medium for another generation.
In the United States, however, radio is anything but the people's
medium. It is the private preserve of a small number of billionaires who
are falling all over themselves to better serve the needs of
Madison Avenue. I do not wish to romanticize the nature of U.S. radio
broadcasting from bygone days, but the fact is that the present day
radio is nothing short of pathetic.
The reason is clear. There are only a few dozen radio channels in a
given community. In 1996 the Telecommunications Act greatly revised the
rules for radio station ownership.
Back in the 70s and 80s, firms could only own around a dozen stations
nationwide and no more than two in a single market. The 1996 law, rammed
though by the powerful corporate radio lobby without a shred of debate
or media coverage, eliminated any restriction on the number of stations a firm
could own nationally, and raised the limit in a single market to eight, in the
Since the law passed, there has been a complete reformation of U.S.
radio, with well over half the 11,000 commercial station changing hands.
Small station groups can not compete with the giant chains so they sell
out. Radio is now dominated by a small handful of firms that
own hundreds of stations each. Every market is now dominated by two or
three firms that are "maxed out" with eight stations each. The quality
of radio has plummeted.
With little competition, the amount of advertising is up to 18 minutes
per hour, according to one industry trade publication, well over the
figure for a decade ago. Also, localized news and production has been
dropped for vastly less expensive standardized fare. You could be
blindfolded and airdropped into Louisiana, Oregon or Vermont and
probably hear the same oldies song or Rush Limbaugh show on the local
Clear Channel, which owns around 800 stations, has shined the light on
the new world order of corporate radio. It usually houses all eight
stations it owns in a given community on one floor of a building.
Each "station" gets one room about the size of a closet where it can
transmit standardized fare. The remaining office space is mostly for the
ad salespeople. In other industries, like computers or automobiles, there might be
arguments that having fewer owners is necessary for economies of scale
that will eventually translate into product innovation and lower prices
for consumers. No such claims can be made in radio. All the
advantages accrue to the owners, none to the public. The stations now
cost a fortune, not because the cost of production is high, but because
stations are worth so much as part of these massive radio chains. It is
a rip-off, pure and simple.
And the rip-off has nothing to do with free markets; it is entirely due
to a corrupt change in the law regulating the publicly owned radio
The rational solution would be to only allow one station per owner,
period. The cost of stations would plummet, while the quality and
diversity and local orientation would skyrocket. Everyone would benefit
except the radio-owning billionaires who currently floss their teeth
with politicians' underpants. So don't hold your breath
expecting any policies to improve matters.
In fact, the radio monopolists have won two incredible anti-democratic
victories in the recent past. First, the FCC enacted a very cautious
plan to permit low-power FM radio broadcasting in the open slots on the
dial in 2000. This would have permitted a handful of noncommercial
locally run stations, that cost only $2,000 using new technology to
transmit a great signal, into every market. But the radio giants used
their leverage on Capital Hill to get a rider effectively killing
"microradio" attached to a budget bill Clinton could not veto. The last
thing the radio giants want is genuine competition for "their"
Second, radio is in the process of being converted from analog to
digital. With the transfer to digital, it would be fairly easy to add
another 30-50 radio stations in every market. But the corporate radio
bosses don't want any competition, so that won't happen. Under pressure
from the radio kingpins, the FCC is going to permit digital radio to
remain as is, except for the technical changeover, and be the private
plaything of the same wonderful radio giants who are presently
carpetbombing the nation with stale content and tons of commercials.
The radio giants promise us that with digital radio, "the change will be
so simple, most listeners won't notice any difference at all."