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The Noise On I-40

by Alexander Cockburn

Is there any chink of light amid the darkness of radioland?
Drive across the United States, mostly on Interstate 40, and you'll have plenty of time to listen to the radio. Even more time than usual if, to take my own situation, you're in a 1976 Ford 350 one-ton pickup, ploughing along at 50 mph. By day I listen to FM.

Bunked down at night, there's some choice on the motels' cable systems, all the way from C-SPAN to pay-as-you-snooze filth, though there's much less of that than there used to be, or maybe you have to go to a Marriott or kindred high-end place to get that. By contrast, the choice on daytime radio, FM or AM, is indeed a vast wasteland far more bleak than the high plains of Texas and New Mexico I've been looking at for the past couple of days.

It's awful. Even the religious stuff has gone to the dogs. I remember 20 years ago making the same drive through the Bible Belt and you'd hear crazed preachers raving in tongues. These days, hell has gone to love. Christian radio is so warm and fuzzy you'd think you were listening to Terry Gross.

By any measure, and you don't need to drive along I-40 to find this out, radio in this country is in ghastly shape. Since the 1996 Telecommunications "Reform" Act, conceived in darkness and signed in stealth, the situation has become even worse. Twenty, 30 years ago, broadcasters could own only a dozen stations nationwide, and no more than two in any single market.

Nowadays, the company Clear Channel owns more than 800 stations that pump out the same identical muck in every state. Since 1996 there's been a colossal shakeout. Small broadcasters can no longer hack it. Two or three stations with eight stations each control each market. Bob McChesney of the University of Madison (Wisconsin) cites an industry publication as saying that the amount of advertising is up to 18 minutes per hour, with these commercials separated by the same endless, golden oldies. On I-40 in Tennessee alone I listened to "Help!" at least 16 times.

The new chairman of the FCC, Colin Powell's son Michael, has just made life even easier for Clear Channel and the other big groups. On March 12 he approved 32 mergers and kindred transactions in 26 markets. Three days later, at the instigation of the FCC, cops burst into Free Radio Cascadia in Eugene, Ore., seized broadcasting equipment and shut FRC down.

Michael Powell is clearly aiming for higher things than the FCC, and he's certainly increased his own family's resources. He refused to absent himself from the FCC's board vote on the AOL-Time merger. The FCC's OK to that deal stands to net Michael's father Colin, a man freighted with AOL stock options derived from his recent service on that company's board, many millions of dollars. Michael insists there was a Chinese wall across the family dining table and he and Dad never chatted about AOL. Why would they need to? If there's a hippo on the hearth rug, you don't need to put a sign on it.

Is there any chink of light amid the darkness of radioland? Yes, there is. Several, in fact. For one thing, the tide may be turning in the Pacifica fight, where the national board has been trying to destroy the independence of Pacifica's local stations around the country and turn the network into a sub-NPR operation.

And low-power radio? The commercial broadcasters fought savagely all last year to beat back the FCC's admittedly flawed plan to license over 1,000 low power stations. In the end the radio lobby attached a rider to an appropriations bill signed by Clinton late last year, with regs ensuring low power would never gain a foothold in cities, also ensuring that the pirate broadcasters of yesteryear who created the momentum for low power, could never get licenses. But make no mistake who the real villain was. Listen to Peter Franck of the National Lawyers' Guild in San Francisco, who has been a leading force in the push for low power FM. "From talking to people in D.C., it is absolutely clear that if NPR had not vigorously joined the NAB in its attempt to kill microradio, the legislation would have gone through."

But all would-be low power broadcasters should know that right now there's opportunity. The FCC has been considering applications for licenses (in some regions the window has already closed), and mostly it's been conservatives (churches included) jumping in. In many states you can still make applications to the FCC. Jump in! Contact the Lawyers' Guild's Center of Democratic Communications at 415-522-9814 or, though first take a look at their Webpage,, to save time.

These fights are all essentially the same, against the same enemy, whether in the form of the Pacifica Board or the directors of NPR or the NAB or the government: the fight for democracy in communications. Here Franck and others are already contemplating a deeper assault on the 1996 Act and the 1934 Communications Act on constitutional grounds. The purpose of the First Amendment is democracy. Democracy requires broad range of opinion. After 75 years of a commercially-based media system we have a narrow range of debate, and this abuse of the airwaves is therefore unconstitutional. That's a big fight, but here it comes.

© Creators Syndicate

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Albion Monitor March 31, 2001 (

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