If you're listening to less and less radio these days, it might be because your busy schedule doesn't permit more extensive listening, or it might be because your favorite station changed formats on you without warning. Or it might be simply this: despite having survived into an era that has all the right ingredients for a new Golden Age, radio has chosen to/has been ordered to suck. Is it A or B? Actually, it's both of them.

On the A side of the issue, you'll find Clear Channel, the largest station owner in the country, an easy target, not just for its size, but for its sheer ubiquity: of the 250 largest radio markets in the US, Clear Channel has facilities in 248. Still, for all their presumed marketing power, they're not making a whole lot of money, which means that their business plan isn't working; since it's unthinkable in this age of consolidation to sell off anything piecemeal, the most likely prospect is for Clear Channel to be acquired by another media conglomerate, perhaps Rupert Murdoch's NewsCorp. It's a perfect fit: people who hate Murdoch are very likely to be the same people who hate Clear Channel.

But it isn't all Clear Channel, all the time; other group broadcasters can't be assumed to be on a higher moral or aesthetic plane. Citadel's portfolio of stations in the Oklahoma City market doesn't demonstrate any notable superiorities to its Clear Channel competition, and the smaller players have stumbled in recent months, Tyler with backing away from its news commitment on its flagship station and Renda with an increasing reliance on syndicated fodder.

Still, to get to the bottom of things, you've got to go to the source, and that source is Michael Powell's Federal Communications Commission, the B side of the issue, the agency that, in effect, commands radio to suck. And that command, from The Man himself:

Given the free over the air nature of the medium, consumers do not express any prior consent to receive certain sounds and images at least not to the extent they do with cable or rented videos, for example.

The First Amendment is cherished, but it bends only for you among media services. The Supreme Court and countless legal decisions create a special exception that allows government to demand more from broadcasting, right or wrongly.

Additionally, free spectrum has always been premised on your industry acting as a public trustee. People feel they have a right to demand higher standards from the industry and have different expectations about what they will see, as compared with the movie theater, a comedy club, HBO, or the Internet.

Translation: "If you dare try anything other than the tried and true, we will slap you down so fast your heads will spin."

But that's not even the worst of it. As Doc Searls points out, radio no longer carries speech, but "delivers content":

[T]he issue isn't speech. It's "content". To Powell, broadcasting is freight forwarding and Howard Stern is merely container cargo that radio stations "carry" (another transport word). To Powell, broadcasting has far more in common with trucking than with publishing.

And while trucking is at least as ubiquitous as radio, trucking isn't deemed to be worth any sort of First Amendment consideration though at the moment, neither is radio.

That loud sucking sound you hear? It's FM. Or maybe it's AM.

The Vent

  22 August 2004

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 Copyright © 2004 by Charles G. Hill