Let's put the 'public' back in public airwaves 

Losing Our Voice

I was never a big fan of Rocky D. Until recently a professional talker on Charleston station 1250 AM WTMA, Rocky was cranky, xenophobic, and even delusional in some of his more extreme moments. But he was a true civic booster, he supported worthy social causes, and — most importantly — he was one of us. He walked the same streets. He breathed the same air as the rest of us. If he was a nut, he was our nut, and he had a big following for his afternoon talk program.

As of last week, Rocky D is off the air, along with morning drive-time talkers Tessa and Baby J, stars of Da Breakfuss Club on Z93 Jamz. They are not the victims of bad ratings, but of corporate bean counters.

Their stations were bought three months ago by Atlanta-based conglomerate Cumulus Media, Inc. Apparently, it took that much time for the Cumulus people to decide they could fatten their bottom line by firing the local Charleston talent and piping in syndicated talkers like Neal Boortz and Clark Howard.

This was all but inevitable when Cumulus Media paid $2.4 billion for Las Vegas-based Citadel Broadcasting and its 225 stations. Cumulus now has 570 stations in 120 markets nationwide. It's all done in the name of economy of scale, something Walmart perfected more than 30 years ago. Cumulus can go through its stations, slashing the local talent and replacing it with syndicated programming.

What happened in Charleston is not unusual. Two weeks ago, Clear Channel, the largest radio station owner in the country with 850 stations, shocked its listeners in Sacramento when it stopped playing soft rock on 92.5 FM, replacing it with the syndicated right-wing talk of KFBK — the station that launched Rush Limbaugh. It means that thousands of music listeners have lost their favorite station and that two giant radio stations now play exactly the same programming throughout the Sacramento region. And it will happen again somewhere this week and next week and the week after because the Federal Communications Commission, which was created to regulate broadcasters and assign broadcast frequencies, has abdicated its responsibility to the public.

The airwaves that broadcasters use to beam out their sounds and images belong to us — the public. Broadcasters are licensed by the FCC and allowed to use our airwaves as long as they broadcast in the public interest. At least that's the way it was supposed to work. That's what the Federal Communications Act called for when it created the FCC in 1934.

Today, the major broadcasting corporations lobby relentlessly to have the FCC loosen its rules on the number of broadcasting outlets a company can own in a particular market and to loosen rules on owning newspapers, radio, and television stations in a single market. One of the trends in modern corporate broadcasting is "covert consolidation," something I wrote about last month, by which two or more television stations share their news staffs and production facilities. It makes great business sense, but of course it's lousy journalism because it reduces the number of journalists working in a city, the number of stories they can cover, and the number of points of view that can be presented. When that happens, we are all at a loss — democracy is at a loss. When that happens, our politics and our culture become more homogenized and less distinct and diverse.

The irony is that this should be a cause that conservatives should jump on. They are constantly decrying the way the federal government reduces local autonomy and is in favor of one-size-fits-all laws and policies. Of course, that's exactly what corporate broadcasters are doing as they eliminate local voices in favor of nationally syndicated talkers and entertainment. As in most cases, though, conservatives are more interested in corporate well-being than in the health of the body politic. This is especially true among conservative radio talkers who are employed by the enormous broadcasting conglomerates.

When I was growing up in a small town in South Carolina many years ago, the locally owned radio station played country music in the mornings and evenings and rock 'n' roll in the afternoons for the kids getting out of school. They covered not just the high school football games, but the Friday afternoon pep rallies before the games. The on-air voice also read from state and local newspapers to keep listeners informed about their little world.

I'm not suggesting that same model would work for a modern radio company. Tastes and needs change. But local input is critical to preserving our sense of community and our very democracy. Why should the FCC allow corporations to dictate our national culture, tastes, and politics? Today organizations such as Free Press and MediaReformSC are working to return the public airwaves to their original purpose — serving the public.

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