Do the People care who owns their TV and radio stations, who feeds them their media gruel? By midday, 195 of the People had made their way to the convention center here. One hundred nineteen of them were white men in suits; many of those men were grumbling about the trip down from Washington. Twenty-two people were scheduled to address the commission; 13 of them had traveled here from the District.
But Anthony Mazza and his friends had made it in from Philadelphia, where they have grown so tired of bland broadcast fare that they attached cardboard TV set frames to their heads and sat in the hearing room wearing blue lab coats -- their protest against 500 channels of nothing to watch.
"Listeners are turning off the radio in huge numbers and the media companies don't care," Mazza says, "because the only thing that matters to them is getting their share of whatever audience there is." Mazza, 30 and unemployed, has a show on Radio Volta, a small community station in Philadelphia that lets him play everything from hard-core hip-hop to old country songs to swing-era jazz. It's all his choice, radio the way it used to be, one person programming for whoever might listen.
That is not the corporate way, as described by Mark Mays, president of Clear Channel Communications, the behemoth that dominates the radio dial in many cities. Clear Channel, he said today, plays "the music our listeners want to hear," as determined by "extensive local audience research, listener requests and feedback." Mays argues that Americans like the wave of consolidation that swept through the radio industry after 1996, when the FCC eliminated the limit on the number of radio stations a company could own nationwide and raised the number a company could own in any one city from two to eight. That reform, Mays and other media executives argue, increased the variety and quality of programming, bringing big-city talent to little towns where the radio station used to be owned by a local family and programmed by low-rent talent.
And what if the people in those little towns liked their homey old radio stations the way they were? In Richmond, where Clear Channel owns six stations, Mays proudly announced that it has enriched the airwaves by adding alternative rock and hip-hop to the menu of formats on the local dial.
Now that's progress. How exciting and generous of Clear Channel to create artificial monopolistic markets from which it alone will profit.
Philadelphian Anthony Mazza and his Radio Volta has as much right to occupy the public airwaves as any corporate entity. The FCC, however, especially under the stewardship of industry sycophant Michael Powell, has recently repositioned itself as a handservant to the corporate and religious broadcasters of the US.
Clear Channel Communications CEO Mark P. Mays called the radio ownership experience following 1996's rule change "the canary in the coalmine, providing evidence of the dangers of deregulation — dangers, they say, that await other media that would follow in radio's footsteps. This analogy doesn't fly for one simple reason — the canary isn't dead. To the contrary, it is alive and well, healthier and more robust than ever."
[FCC] Commissioner [Michael] Copps' retort: "You're right, it's not dead –- it immediately acquired the coal mine, and now controls 12 radio stations down there."