Criticism. Essay. Fiction. Science. Weather.
In the years directly following the FCC's passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, it seemed as though the radio romantics and the deregulation doubters had been right. No longer stymied by the FCC's restrictive radio regulations that had previously capped the number of stations any one entity could own nationally or locally, large media corporations gobbled up regionally owned radio stations and the airwaves were filled with standardized slop.
However, thanks to the introduction of new music technology and Congress' continued commitment to keeping the internet relatively free of regulation (enabling podcasting), radio is now facing new sources of competition. Perhaps deregulation, as FCC Chairman Michael Powell argued, was necessary to preserve radio as an economically viable medium, afterall.
As reported in a recent Wall Street Journal Article, radio industry profits have begun to level off
as satellite radio, Ipods, and podcasting
have begun to capitalize on consumers' frustrations with the lack of choice on the dial. Consequently, some radio stations have begun to change their tune, switching to more diverse playlists in hopes of winning back "Ipod generation" listeners
With the sudden breath of fresh air over the dial, the question arises: was Powell right -- would the pre 1996 regulations have prevented the radio industry from competing with new more user friendly technology?
Some say the regulations have not gone nearly far enough. Adam Thierer of the Progress and Freedom blog argues that the radio industry is undeniably un-concentrated when compared to other industries. Citing the example of Clear Channel, media critic's poster-child for all things evil in radio, Thierer notes that the Corporation owns just 1200 stations nationwide, constituting a mere 10% market share. In addition, the radio industry's Herfindahl-Hirschman Index (HHI), a tool used by the DOJ and FTC to determine industry ownership concentration, is a 469, quite low considering "as a general rule of thumb, a market exhibiting an HHI below 1,000 is viewed as unconcentrated," according to Thierer.
Critics argue that it is not station ownership concentration that counts, but the number of listeners any given entity is reaching. The Washington-based music industry think tank, the Future of Music Coalition, recently reported that
"every geographic (radio) market is dominated by four firms, controlling 70 percent of the market or greater." Therefore, the majority of listeners have been getting their music and news from fewer and fewer sources despite un-concentrated levels of ownership (as compared to other markets).
So what's the verdict? Should radio ownership be compared to other markets? For the better part of the 20th century the answer was an unequivocal, no! Radio spectrum was considered to be a scarce public resource, regulated by Congress to produce programming that would be in the "public interest."
The answer is now more blurry, though. Will Ipods, sattelite radio, and internet radio provide the type of information that will foster civic engagement, a true Tocquevillian associational life? After all, this is not just your rich Uncle Alfred's technology anymore, it's here and it's everywhere: nearly 11% of the population owns an IPod/mp3 player and minorities and young adults
are most likely to own them. Still, it's unlikely these mediums will catalyze civic engagement the way good radio once did, as they lack the type of local quality and content filtering that radio in its golden age provided at each stop on the dial.