Reporter, Los Angeles Times
The radio business, in the early '90s, had really started to suffer. There were lots of stations that were doing poorly financially, and the broadcast lobby, which is a very powerful lobby in Washington, successfully lobbied Congress to raise the limits on station ownership. So, whereas before a company would be limited to owning roughly 40 stations nationwide, when this 1996 legislation was passed, there was suddenly no limit of what you could [own]. Thousands of radio stations changed hands and companies that wanted to really get on radio were able to pull up some enormous multi-billion dollar mergers. And suddenly a company that once owned three-dozen stations could suddenly own a thousand.
And so you just had forces emerge that couldn't have legally existed before because of this change, and that's really revolutionized the music business.
The effect has been?
... All of a sudden you have these companies emerge where they controlled every station in that city or they controlled a small station that you used to be able to hold sway over. But they also have a huge station that held sway over you, and they can use that to leverage the record companies. So, the bounds of power really shifted toward the radio conglomerates.
And this idea of 20-song playlists, you're talking about a funnel being narrowed?
Right. I think it's difficult to measure exactly what the effect on playlists has been. But, I think there's statistics that show at least at the top of the playlist, there are fewer new songs that are getting the heaviest rotations. So what you're seeing is essentially a trend where in most radio formats there's a small number of songs that get played over and over and over again. And the number of songs that get that opportunity has definitely shrunk.
And so if you are someone who believes, as a lot of record executives do, that radio is the most powerful promotional tool that you have, and a big part of your week is spent trying to get spins on radio stations, that's a big problem. Because now you've got few opportunities to get into that pipeline where exposures would seem to translate to record sales.
Attorney, Carroll Guido & Groffman, LLP
There's essentially, I don't know, two or three radio stations for all intents and purposes right now, which limits the ability of music, different music, to get out there. Program lists are being devised on an almost national basis for certain kinds of formats. The independent thinker as used to exist in the radio station is no longer allowed to exist.
In the early days of the music business, the record business, you could find a DJ in Cleveland, like Alan Fried, or in Buffalo, who would fall in love with a record, start playing it, people would react to it, and you could start a record off that way. It's much more difficult to do now with two or three conglomerates controlling all the radio formats. These problems beget their own solutions.
Satellite radio may end up being what radio is about. Pirate radio has been a result of the consolidation of radio stations. And the lack of power of radio really, in terms of affecting people's lives, is a result of its dumbing down to a bland, one-dimensional approach to music.
Contributing Editor, Rolling Stone
Clear Channel controls the vast majority of the radio stations in the country. By any normal standards it's a monopoly. So instead of having lots of program directors, and maybe the guy in Philadelphia is a little crazy and he'll play a record nobody else will play, and people start hearing it, and requesting it, and the record takes off by itself. No more. Clear Channel is in control. If they don't want it played, it doesn't get played. The public doesn't get a chance to call in and vote, and speak.
So now if you can't get through Clear Channel, or you can't get through MTV, how does anybody know your record is out?
Music director, KCRW (Santa Monica, Calif.) and host of "Morning Becomes Eclectic"
Clear Channel is always referred to as, you know, this great Satan, or the worst example of this. They've done nothing different from what other businesses would do given the state of their industry, what the FCC deregulation of the industry has said, that you are allowed to own thousands of radio stations if you want to. I mean, it makes sense that a businessman would say, "Well, let's do it. And then let's use our clout to make even more money."
I think it's a bit of a red herring when people say that the music industry is all screwed up; it's Clear Channel and all this kind of thing. It's actually the way business is done in America that's kind of messed up. Because this is not unique to the music industry. I mean, look at the pharmaceutical industry and how business is done in that industry with free samples and holidays and going to doctors and all this kind -- I mean, this is how business is done in America today. It's not just the music industry.
So it shouldn't surprise us. So why are we surprised?
I don't know why we're surprised. I guess most people don't take too much notice of this stuff. You know, we all go about our lives. Everybody has got their lives to lead. We have to worry about paying the bills, the mortgage and getting the kids out of the house in the morning. Now, people are not worried about how the music industry is squeezing independent artists out of getting airplay.
But, it's only when we think back and we say to ourselves, "my God, for 30 years I've been listening to the Rolling Stones and Elton John and Madonna and The Beatles. And 30 years from now what am I going to be listening to, because I can't find anything I like on the radio?" I mean, maybe that's when you suddenly say to yourself, maybe this matters.
Well, maybe if you're our age, you're thinking that. But, if you're 20 you're not thinking that, because you weren't there when that golden era of FM radio was there and independent music did get heard, and record labels signed artists that actually expected it to take three albums before they brought them in. We know that because we were perhaps around then. But the younger generation of music listeners is not aware of that stuff. This stuff is not a surprise to them.
Does it matter?
Sure, it matters. It matters because in a society where artists are squeezed out of being heard or seen, whether it's in music or any other art form, then you're really not getting a challenge to the status quo. So, if music is being made by an independent artist, but is not being heard, then things are not going to change. There's no challenge to the accepted norm. And that's really what the artists are for, and that's the role that they play throughout history. …
Radio is so horrible right now. I don't even understand what the FCC was trying to accomplish. I just am like, what was the goal of this again? I thought you were supposed to be creating opportunity. You gave monopolies. You basically created monopolies. The richest and the strongest took over.
It's such a complicated game that it's hard to maneuver. If you've got a record that's working, and you're on there, you love the system. If you have a song like a "Hey Ya" that all thousand Clear Channel stations are playing, you're in heaven.
But if you have a record that none of the Clear Channel stations are playing, you're out. What do I do? Like, who do I have to pay? It's not good. There's no competition, there's no originality, the playlists don't entertain new artists. There's no new energy. …
» Radio Deregulation: Has It Served Citizens and Musicians?
In November 2002, the Future of Music Coalition released a study in partnership with the Media Access Group that found radio consolidation to be detrimental to artists and listeners. Among the many findings of the study was that "A small number of companies control what music is played on specific formats. Coupled with a broad trend toward shorter playlists, this creates few opportunities for musicians to get on the radio. Further, overwhelming consolidation of these formats deprives citizens the opportunity to hear a wide range of music..." (Future of Music Coalition, Nov. 18, 2002)
» NAB's response to FOM study
In anticipation of the release of the Future of Music's study and ensuing press coverage, the National Association of Broadcasters issued this response, which calls FOM's public opinion survey "highly flawed" and debunks several of the study's findings as "myths." (National Association of Broadcasters, Nov. 15, 2002; Note: This is a PDF file)
» "Radio Market Structure and Music Diversity"
Using data from the charts published in R&R magazine, an FCC Media Bureau research paper evaluates radio diversity since the 1996 Telecom Act: "Overall, we found that song diversity, whether measured as the number of unique songs or the difference between top ten playlists has remained stable between March 1996 and March 2001. While playlists for stations within the same format have grown slightly more uniform across local markets, playlists for same format stations competing in the same local market have diverged..." (FCC, September 2002, Note: This is a Microsoft Word file)
» Virtual Radio
This transcript from Now With Bill Moyers examines the consolidation of the radio industry and its "real consequences for democracy and consumers." (Now With Bill Moyers, April 26, 2002)
» "Radio's Big Bully"
Eric Boehlert, an outspoken critic of Clear Channel, outlines in detail the history behind the radio conglomerates and the effects radio consolidation has had on the industry. "Thanks to laissez-faire regulators in Washington," he writes, "Clear Channel quickly has put together a stunning piece of vertical integration in big-money pop culture," he writes. "Last year, the company spent $4.4 billion to purchase SFX Entertainment, the nation's dominant concert venue owner and touring promoter. Clear Channel also owns a radio research company, a format consultancy, regional radio news networks, an airplay monitoring system, syndicated programming, radio trade magazines like the Album Network, 19 television stations and 700,000 outdoor billboards worldwide. With so many resources at hand, the company has all but cut off its business with outside vendors." (Salon.com, April 30, 2001)
home · introduction · artists' stories · interviews · perfect storm · inside the music business
poll: how do you get your music? · discussion · producer's chat · press reaction · tapes & transcripts
posted may 27, 2004
FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of wgbh educational foundation.
headphone photo copyright © corbis
web site copyright 1995-2014
WGBH educational foundation