The title of the cd, "Free Air", is my little swipe at media consolidation that is, among other things, the control of more and more radio stations by fewer and fewer owners. Prior to February 8, 1996, a single company was limited to owning no more than, I think, 40 stations, until the Federal Communications Commission under the Telecommunications Act of 1996, lifted that restriction. What followed was a feeding frenzy, as large corporations gobbled up station after station. The biggest fish, Clear Channel Communications, ended up owning at least 1,100 radio stations in 50 states. Viacom's Infinity Broadcasting with 180 stations in 41 markets.
A report by the Future of Music Coalition found that from 1995-2005 local ownership of radio stations had declined by one-third. Between March 1996 and March 2007, according to an American Anti-trust Institute working paper abstract, the number of commercial radio stations increased 6.8 per cent, while the number of station owners decreased by 39 per cent. The Project for Excellence in Journalism reported a complaint that new ownership rules have led to the diminishing of the quality of the AM/FM radio dial by the monopolization of markets and the homogenization of content.
The effects of media consolidation have been acutely felt in the music business. At an FCC public hearing in Nashville in December of 2006, the late country great Porter Wagoner said, "The days of an artist receiving airplay as a new act are gone." Regarding how his former partner Dolly Parton had scored her first hit with 1973's "Jolene", he added, "The chance of that happening today is slim to none." Those scenes in the movie, "Coal Miner's Daughter", where Sissy Spacek is getting small stations to play an unknown Loretta Lynn's record...that doesn't happen anymore.
But media consolidation affects not just the music that we hear, but more importantly, the information and news we get, and the diversity of opinions that we can hear expressed. We need accurate information and news to be able to make informed decisions about the many issues we face today and tomorrow. We need to be able to hear a diversity of viewpoints.
Ironically, the deregulation of radio has led to a stifling of the freedom of the intellectual and cultural "marketplace of ideas" so necessary for a vibrant society. Instead, a broadcasting company of a particular political bent can now have a super-sized megaphone, out of all proportion to their actual representation of the views of listeners, with which they can drown out the voices of diversity and opposing opinions. How often, for example, do we even hear a talk radio program that isn't espousing anything other than a conservative viewpoint?
From an excellent discussion in "The Structural Imbalance of Political Talk Radio" from the Center for American Progress: “Our analysis in the spring of 2007 of the 257 news/talk stations owned by the top five commercial station owners reveals that 91 per cent of the total weekday talk radio programming is conservative, and 9 per cent is progressive.” This at a time when the country is basically evenly divided between conservative and progressive.
Broadcasters were granted the privilege of the use of the airwaves, not the right to dictate the terms of their use. The potential peril to our free society from a handful of corporate entities swaying public opinion, controlling the news and opinions that we receive, could have the gravest of consequences for our country, locally and nationally, short-term and long-term.
Far beyond the music industry, media consolidation is a serious matter, one that affects the free flow of information and ideas. I'm not affiliated with any of the following groups, and I know there are others that I haven't listed, but these are good places to start if you're interested in learning more.
A couple of good documentaries on how media consolidation has adversely affected the music we hear are a PBS "Frontline" episode, "The Way the Music Died" and the 2006 documentary, "Before the Music Dies."