When we assign our students to listen
to the radio and report what they hear, horror stories abound.
Earlier this year, one student reported that a rock station he
listened to played approximately 13 minutes of commercials, followed
by one song and then another 12 minutes of commercials. Students
complain that today's best new rock bands get no airplay and that
the music being played on commercial stations has become
increasingly violent and misogynist. Even those who hope to land
jobs in the industry cannot muster much enthusiasm about what they
One reason for the growing discontent
around programming is that large radio companies don't do enough to
serve local communities or diverse tastes. One solution to this
problem is to allow noncommercial low-power FM stations to go on the
In the past, radio companies were
limited to owning one AM and one FM station in each market and seven
stations nationwide. In those days more station owners were tied to
their communities. Through the 1980s and '90s ownership regulations
were relaxed, until they were all but abolished as a result of the
Telecommunications Act of 1996.
Since 1996, ownership of many of the
nation's 10,000 radio stations has become rapidly consolidated into
the hands of a few large companies. In major cities, where most of
the population lives, viable stations are now primarily owned by
Viacom, Disney and Clear Channel.
Clear Channel is the largest radio
owner in the United States, owning more than 1,200 stations and
taking in at least 20 percent of all radio revenues. In Chicago, it
owns six stations, including all the leading stations targeting
In Rockford, Cumulus, the company best
known for banning the Dixie Chicks after one of their members made
anti-Bush comments, owns four leading stations. More than half the
population tunes in to at least one of their stations.
Radio conglomerates like Clear Channel
have greatly increased their profits by slashing local jobs,
replacing unique local elements with standardized programming
created at regional and national headquarters, and sharply
increasing the number of commercials they play. They simply do not
provide enough local content or diverse voices.
For example, WXRT in Chicago had a news
department with several full-time reporters when it was locally
owned. Now it is owned by Viacom, one of the largest global media
companies, and has only one part-time news employee. These cutbacks
are bad for our culture and for our democracy.
[to top of second column
in this article]
Fortunately, since 1996, community
voices agitating for more alternatives to commercial radio have
become louder and louder. In 2000, the Federal Communications
Commission decided to allow hundreds of new low-power FM radio
stations to go on the air. With a broadcast radius of up to 10
miles, these noncommercial stations could serve their neighborhoods
with local public affairs, news programming and a wider array of
music. The plan seemed like an ideal way to offset some of the
losses caused by media ownership consolidation.
However, big corporate broadcasters
lobbied against low-power FM by claiming that low-power transmitters
interfered with their signals. Under pressure from the National
Association of Broadcasters, Congress blocked the FCC from giving
licenses to many low-power applicants, including the Black Business
Alliance in Bloomington and Heartland Community College in Normal.
In Chicago, the Southwest Youth Collaborative, a group that works
with youth from some of the city's most poverty-stricken
neighborhoods, wanted to start a low-power FM station but was unable
to secure a license because of the limits put on low-power FM by
Congress. In total, 37 applications for licenses have been made in
Illinois and 17 have been approved, including the Not-for-Profit
Jazz Group in Quincy, Blues and Soul Inc. in Danville, and the
Southern Illinois Educational Low Power Radio Association in
The time has come to revisit low-power
FM. A recent FCC-commissioned study found that these stations do not
interfere with high-powered signals. A proposal has been made in
Congress to bring low-power FM back. According to the Prometheus
Radio Project, a low-power advocacy group, dozens, if not hundreds,
of new low-power stations would be created in Illinois if this
proposal were accepted.
low-power radio may not solve all of the problems with radio today,
it would be a huge step in the right direction.
and Karen Young]
* * *
Macek is an assistant professor of
speech communication at North Central College in Naperville. Young
is an adjunct professor at Columbia College in Chicago and a founder
of the media activist group Active Voice.
Editorial Forum is a nonprofit, nonpartisan educational organization
that provides the media with the views of state experts on major
public concerns in order to stimulate informed discussion.