Consolidation called censorship

Country musicians bemoan lack of diversity to FCC

Media consolidation doesn't play well here in Music City, USA.

A roomful of singers and songwriters, famous and unknown, criticized FCC proposals to ease the rules governing who can own what media outlet where. They vented during a second field hearing on media ownership Monday at Belmont University's Massey Performance Center.

Such music impresarios as George Jones, Porter Wagoner and Dobie Gray lined up to warn the FCC against allowing single entities to buy up more local outlets.

"The days of an artist receiving regional airplay or breaking as a new act on radio are gone, and you are now considering making the situation even worse by letting some broadcast dynasties become even bigger broadcasting dynasties," Wagoner told the commissioners.

Easing the ownership regulations would shut out new performers and harm veterans like himself, Jones told the commission.

"I hate to think that some of these radio station owners could own even more television stations and newspapers," he said. "Sugar is sweet, but too much can kill you."

Democratic commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein got rounds of applause when they attacked the commission's original decision in 2003 to ease the rules.

"Dumbed-down news is not helping our democracy any more than homogenized music and national playlists are giving us entertainment truly reflective of the creative genius of this diverse nation," Copps said.

"We are paying too heavy a price for the lack of diversity, localism, creativity and competition that so much consolidation has visited upon us," he added. "The bottom line here is this — the people don't have enough say as to how their airwaves are being used, and it's time to do something about it."

Copps' oration got a standing ovation from the crowd that packed the auditorium. His message was enlarged by the testimony of musicians.

John Rich, of the country group Big & Rich, said the state of media ownership treads heavily on the rights of citizens.

"We're at a level of potential censorship here," Rich said. "One guy, in effect, can tell 30 million people what they can hear, and that's censorship."

Rich argued that the disappearance of country music stations in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco is a symptom of the problem. "To me, it's one of the most anti-American things I've ever seen in my life," he said.

Not everyone agreed.

Cromwell Radio president Bayard Walters was among the broadcasters who told the commissioners that some consolidation is necessary to survive.

"At small stations, in big and small towns, most of the business is local, but the bigger box stores are coming and changing that," Walters said. "Thus consolidation opportunity is even more important in smaller towns to compete against other media and be viable as a 'free' local service."

Walters pointed out that Nashville has more stations now than it did in the heyday of radio, when WSM and WLAC dominated the local market.

"Those stations are still here and owned by larger companies, but it takes a cluster of several stations to get the listeners and advertisers that one station could get 35 years ago," he said.

FCC chairman Kevin Martin has championed easing the rules, particularly the general bar preventing local joint ownership of newspapers and broadcast outlets.

"Some of our rules have not been updated for years and may no longer reflect the current marketplace," Martin said. "It is our task to respond to the court by ensuring that our ownership rules take into account the competitive environment in which media companies operate and promote localism and diversity."

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

Former FCC chairman Michael Powell pushed through loosened rules in 2003, but the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals 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, according to Democratic FCC commissioners who opposed the plan.

One regulation to raise a single company's audience-reach ceiling to 45% of U.S. households, instead of 35%, was taken off the table that year when Congress set the audience-reach ceiling at 39% by statute.

Media companies contend that existing ownership rules are outmoded in a media landscape that has been altered substantially by cable TV, satellite broadcasts and the Internet. Critics disagree, arguing that easing restrictions likely will lead to a wave of mergers, handing a few giant media companies control of what the public sees, hears and reads.
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