Who Owns the Airwaves? We Do!

Panel on Media Ownership Attracts An Activist Public

Volume CIII, No. 3March, 2003

Summer Smith

One single corporation, Clear Channel, owns more than 1,200 radio stations in the country, reaching over one-third of the U.S. population.

And ten companies control two-thirds of radio stations nationwide.

This consolidation was made possible by the Telecommunications Act in 1996. But now, the FCC is reviewing media ownership rules again, deciding whether to continue the pattern of deregulation.

On Jan. 16, the Kernochan Center for Law, Media and the Arts at Columbia Law School hosted an all-day forum on FCC media ownership rules. Labor and other media, entertainment, community and consumer groups organized the forum, as well as one in Los Angeles, after the FCC announced it would hold only one public hearing on the upcoming review of media ownership regulations – and chose Richmond, Va., as the site.

The FCC commissioners were invited to the independently organized New York forum, and several commissioners attended and spoke. They attempted to impress upon the audience their burden: every two years, they must prove that any given broadcast ownership rule is necessary to promote and protect competition, diversity and localism in that field. Congress overturns those rules that the FCC can not justify with quantifiable data.

Many of the panelists, who represented a range of labor, media, and community organizations, protested this Congressional mandate for numerical data. The issues they raised were issues of quality: Thomas Carpenter, National Director of News & Broadcast for AFTRA, pointed out radio consolidators’ increased use of “voice tracking,” which replaces live radio with pre-recorded announcers who pretend they are recording live from the listener’s community. Jenny Toomey, executive director of the Future of Music Coalition, cited survey results indicating widespread audience dissatisfaction with choices on the radio.

Media industry panelists decried these issues as anecdotal and irrelevant, and said government should not interfere with market forces. The audience at the hearing was perceptibly anti-deregulation, however; Carpenter received a spontaneous outburst of applause when he asserted that the airwaves are a public resource in the trusteeship of the government, which bears a responsibility to the public.

Ellen Agress, senior vice president of Fox Entertainment Group, maintained that no regulation of the airwaves was necessary beyond antitrust laws, eliciting incredulous gasps and murmurs of outrage from the audience. Agress and other industry executives pouted that the audience wasn’t giving them a fair chance.

One speaker responded that if the industry executives seemed ruffled, it was because they are accustomed to a chummy, behind-closed-doors relationship with the FCC, and did not have to justify their actions under public scrutiny.

Again and again, panelists cited the conditions in the radio industry since the passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act as a model of the disastrous consequences of media deregulation. (See the President’s Report in the July/August 2002 Allegro for a history of the Act.) The concern expressed by most panelists and audience members was that the FCC was yielding to media industry demands for deregulation, and not giving enough consideration to the negative impact the Telecommunications Act has had on radio content quality. Toomey and other panelists described a bleak landscape in the radio industry since the 1996 deregulation, with giants like Clear Channel gaining ownership of a majority of stations, venues and promoters, and using their control of the airwaves to create a de-facto payola system for airtime, effectively keeping independent music off the radio.

“‘Deregulation’ is a misnomer,” said panelist and professor Robert W. McChesney, author of “Rich Media, Poor Democracy.” “The airwaves are actually highly regulated. If you and I broadcast on Clear Channel waves, we’ll go to jail. What ‘deregulation’ really means is regulation for corporate interests.”

There is an effort in Congress to undo some of the damage caused by the 1996 Telecommunications Act. Senator Russ Feingold is re-introducing a bill, the Competition in Radio and Concert Industries Act, aimed at addressing the problems of payola and anti-competitive consolidation in these industries. Sample letters that musicians can send their senators in support of Feingold’s bill are available on the AFM web site at

One panelist succinctly summed up the importance of the FCC maintaining diversity, localism and competition in the radio industry: “Radio is the medium closest to the people. TV couldn’t kill it, cable couldn’t kill it, the Internet couldn’t kill it, but greed might finish us off.”

For more on this issue, see this month’s Guest Commentary.