Coalition knocks radio consolidation


WASHINGTON -- Putting more radio stations in fewer hands has reduced listener choices and made it harder for musicians to get airplay, according to a report issued Wednesday by the Future of Music Coaltion.

The report, "False Premises, False promises: Quantitative History of Ownership Consolidation in the Radio Industry," argues that consolidation of the industry since the 1996 Telecommunications Act has harmed the public.

"The Wal-Martization of radio is bad for music and much worse for America," said Audio Salve guitarist Tom Morello, formerly of Rage Against the Machine.

When Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the radio industry changed drastically," said Peter DiCola, FMC research director and the report's author.

"Historical data from the industry reveal unprecedented consolidation and show that the telecom act has backfired in terms of the FCC's goals of competition, localism, and diversity in radio," DiCola said. "Commercial radio now offers musicians fewer opportunities to get airtime and offers the public a narrow set of overlapping and homogenized programming formats."

The not-for-profit organization of music, technology, public policy and intellectual property law groups, has been a long-term opponent of easing the nation's media ownership restrictions.

The FMC report found that:

-- The top four radio station owners have almost half of the listeners and the top 10 owners have almost two-thirds of listeners.

-- Local radio ownership by individuals living in the community -- has declined between 1975 and 2005 by almost one-third.

-- Fifteen formats make up three-quarters of all commercial programming.

-- Niche musical formats like classical, jazz, Americana, bluegrass, new rock, and folk, where they exist, are provided almost exclusively by smaller station groups,

-- Radio listenership has declined over the past 14 years, a 22% drop since its peak in 1989. The consolidation allowed by the telecom act has failed to reverse this trend.

Broadcasters called the study flawed.

"FMC's long history of producing questionable research and dubious data to fulfill its agenda-driven mission is apparent for all to see," said NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton. "As the BIA Financial Network study indicates, free local radio has more format diversity than at any time in its rich history. Moreover, with the advent of HD Radio, local radio will be providing more news, more music formats, and more public service for the 260 million people who tune in every week."

The NAB contends that radio choices have expanded, in their owns study they say the number of programming formats have increased by 16% since 1996.

In June, the FCC 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 raised 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 were 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.