Are you a musician? Do you live in a town with an awesome music scene? Are you or any of your peers enjoying recognition in your community or beyond? Do you get airplay on your local commercial radio station?
If you live in Los Angeles and your band is Red Hot Chili Peppers, you can skip the last question. If you are among the rest of musical humanity, we’re guessing the answer is “not so much.”
A more important question to ask is why even the most celebrated local and regional bands can’t crack commercial playlists in their own backyards. This has much less to do with talent or popularity and everything to do with media ownership.
So who’s in charge of that, anyway?
Why, the Federal Communications Commission (). This agency is tasked with reviewing the country’s media ownership rules every four years, and is currently wrapping up an examination of existing regulations. Instead of recognizing what millions of Americans (not to mention the courts) have said about the appalling lack of ownership diversity in radio, television and print media, the Commission is poised to allow even more consolidation in ownership. This means more restrictive playlists and fewer viewpoints represented in your broadcast media.
We’re not making things up: FMC’s 2006 research looking at the actual songs played on stations — and the overlap between uniquely named formats — clearly demonstrated the effects of ownership consolidation on music broadcast on commercial radio. Our studies found that, while format “variety” had increased (in other words, there were more different types of radio formats), in most cases the increase had zero bearing on what gets played. Sort of like changing all the labels on cans at the grocery store but inside is the exact same tomato soup.
As part of our study, FMC examined the playlists of many of these supposedly distinct formats, finding considerable overlap in terms of the songs played. Pairs of supposedly different formats can share well over half the same songs, such as is the case with Rock and Active Rock, which overlap at an 80 percent level.
The FCC has a mandate is to promote localism, competition and diversity in American media. Unfortunately for radio, their definition of “diversity” is extraordinarily narrow. Currently, the fad is to suggest that only news formats can be programmatically diverse. As music fans, that sounds pretty ridiculous. Artistic expression is speech, and can reflect an incredible range of “viewpoints.” Moreover, diversity in ownership is surely linked to diversity in programming, so why is it considered so restrictively, if it’s even considered at all?
It doesn’t take a genius to understand that it makes a huge difference when a radio station is owned by the same corporation that also owns the local newspaper and a major TV channel. The evidence clearly shows that a wider variety of programming comes from the smaller stations and not the big broadcasting groups. So when you look at FMC’s 2008 playlist analysis of what songs get airtime, it’s impossible to note the incredibly narrow playlists without taking into account the high concentration in station ownership.
Of course, all of this impacts more than radio — we’re talking about whether a small handful of companies get to decide what information you encounter on any given day. But what about the internet? Doesn’t it offer all the diversity we could ever need? Surely, the internet is amazing, but it’s only part of the picture. Local media can offer a platform for community voices that tend to get lost online. Not to mention the fact that not every American has access to affordable broadband. This is why it is crucial to nurture diversity of content and programming on traditional media platforms like radio.
The FCC is getting close to issuing its final media ownership rulemaking, but there’s still time to make a difference. Our friends at Free Press have made it easy to share your viewpoints with the Commission. We encourage musicians and music fans to do just that.