Media consolidation strikes sour note, musicians tell FCC

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Radio consolidation is shrinking playlists and creating a homogenized musical landscape, several singers and songwriters told the Federal Communications Commission at a Dec. 11 panel discussion.

Amid jokes about putting together a band and getting country music legend George Jones’ autograph, some of Music City’s most respected icons spoke out against media consolidation in the second of six public hearings the FCC is holding to evaluate the current rules regarding media ownership. (Hear audio of hearing.)

Commissioner Michael J. Copps earned the first standing ovation of the day by speaking out against media consolidation and reminding the audience that he had been against former chairman Michael Powell’s attempts to deregulate ownership laws in 2003.

“History teaches us that creative artists have often been leaders for progressive change and democracy in times of great political and social strain. Their words of protest and wisdom have not only meant a great deal at crucial moments in this nation’s past, but still reach out to us down the corridors of the passing years,” Copps said.

After a brief statement from the four commissioners present — Commissioner Robert McDowell was absent — the star-studded panel began to speak in front of the crowd at the Mike Curb College of Entertainment and Music Business at Belmont University.

“Big radio is bad radio,” Rick Carnes, president of the Songwriters Guild of America, told the commissioners. “You can drive I-40 from Knoxville to Barstow, Calif., and hear the same 20 songs on every country radio station.”

Many of the panelists expressed their discontent with the current levels of consolidation. Playlists are often designed in corporate headquarters, limiting the ability of local and independent artists to get airtime.

Jones revealed his frustration with the process. “Disc jockeys have told (my wife and manager) Nancy that they would love to play my music, but I’m too old … there’s no room for me on their playlist.”

Naomi Judd compared big media to robber coal barons in her home state of Kentucky. “They rape us, and then they pay a small pittance of a fine,” she said before she gave Copps an autograph and promised him a chicken-and-dumplings dinner.

Grand Ole Opry star Porter Wagoner, wearing a purple incarnation of his signature sequined suit, said “clear channel” used to mean a powerful coast-to-coast radio signal like the one that used to broadcast the Opry.

But he said when you say it now, people think about Clear Channel Communications Inc., the media conglomerate that owns hundreds of radio stations and other media outlets.

Wagoner also said radio consolidation restricts the ability of both veteran and new artists to be heard. “The days of an artist receiving airplay as a new act are gone,” Wagoner said.

Recalling how his former duet partner, Dolly Parton, scored her first big country and pop hit in 1973 with the song, “Jolene,” Wagoner said, “The chance of that happening today is almost slim to none.”

But Bayard Walters, president of the Cromwell Group, which owns radio stations in Tennessee, Kentucky and Illinois, said many small-town stations are operating and viable today because of consolidation.

Several of those stations provide opportunities for new and local artists, as well as local content like news, weather and traffic, said Walters, who is also a past chairman of the Tennessee Association of Broadcasters.

Walters argued that there are 11,000-plus commercial radio stations nationwide, and the biggest five companies own 2,000 of those, while the next 20 only own 1,000 stations. There are a greater number of licensees today than there were in 1972, he said.

“There are those that say broadcasters don’t do enough, but what is the balance in presenting local and new music versus what the public seems to indicate what it wants to hear through ratings and purchases?” he asked. “It does not seem to me that the license says, ‘Market for free the music of whomever wants to be on the radio.’”

Jenny Toomey, the executive director of the Future of Music Coalition, revealed results from her foundation’s latest report about the effects of media consolidation over the past 30 years, noting that local ownership of radio stations declined by one-third from 1995 to 2005.

The panel was followed by a public-comment session, during which citizens were given two minutes to speak directly to the FCC commissioners. Though the speakers came from all walks of life and all across Tennessee, they expressed a common belief that the airwaves belong to the public. Statements such as “We own the airwaves” and “Let’s take back our airwaves” were followed by thunderous applause.

A second panel discussion focused on the cross-ownership rule, which restricts a company from owning both a newspaper and broadcast station in the same city.

Gary Cunningham, publisher and president of GCA Publishing, said repeal of the cross-ownership ban would “silence many present editorial voices in this country” and would create a situation in which “news would be in the hands of a few and controlled by a few.”

Alex Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, said cross-ownership of major media properties in any community was a “bad idea.”

Jones, whose family co-owns The Greeneville Sun newspaper in East Tennessee, said the principal responsibility of large media companies was to shareholders, not to public service.

Newspapers, TV stations and other traditional news outlets — which he said were vital to a healthy democracy — already are cutting news staffs to keep profit margins high, he said, and the situation would only grow worse if competition eroded further.

But Ellen Leifeld, publisher and president of The Tennessean, which is owned by Gannett Co., said consolidation could “encourage the quality and quantity of news” in a market, such as allowing better cooperation between newspaper and television newsrooms.

She also emphasized that at her paper, news coverage is determined by a team in the newsroom — not from corporate headquarters — and that The Tennessean is heavily involved in helping local charities and other local organizations.

“We are not faceless suits,” said Leifeld, who began her remarks by noting that Gannett was providing management opportunities to minorities and women like herself before some other companies.

The FCC plans to use the information from the hearings as it re-examines rules for media ownership. The first public hearing was held in two parts in Los Angeles and El Segundo in October.

The FCC in June reopened the hotly disputed issue of ownership limits, including the number of radio and television stations that one owner can have and restrictions on the cross-ownership between newspapers and broadcasters.

Former FCC Chairman Michael Powell pushed through loosened rules in 2003, but a federal appeals court in Philadelphia threw them out on grounds that the FCC compiled an insufficient record to justify them.

The 2003 changes would have let one corporation own, in a single community, up to three TV stations, eight radio stations, the cable system, the only daily newspaper and the biggest Internet provider, opponents argue.

They say the change would hurt minorities’ access to the airwaves, curtail children’s and local programming and limit musical diversity.

But many broadcasters and large media companies have supported looser FCC rules, saying the current restrictions are outdated in a digital age in which consumers also have the choice of Internet, cable and satellite TV.

Melanie Bengtson is an intern at the First Amendment Center and a sophomore studying developmental politics at Belmont University.

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