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Radio AM to FM: November 24, 2000

Breaking Monopolies

In theory, radio waves belong to the public. As generally defined by the Federal Communications Commission, this means that, while the public at large cannot broadcast wherever or however they want, those lucky enough to obtain a license must broadcast in the public interest. In the past that meant providing a local studio and offices located in the city of license, broadcasting a certain level of news and providing public affairs programming of interest to the local community.

That was the past. In present terms, broadcasting in the public interest has been turned into a perverse combination of consolidation and cost-cutting, made possible by companies that are essentially monopolies in the broadcast world. In Los Angeles, three companies control enough stations to earn almost fifty percent of the available listenership. And the worst of those? Easily Clear Channel Communications.

It is not against the law to be a monopoly. But it is against the law to use those monopoly powers to gain an advantage. In the case of Clear Channel, those monopoly powers have translated to using the public airwaves to broadcast mediocre programming, slash jobs, cut out any type of real news or public affairs programming, and remove any way for the public at large to visit the local studios. In essence, Clear Channel is in no way even approaching anything involving broadcasting in the public interest.

Tired of the repetition of KIIS-FM? That's fine, try Star 98.7. Both are Clear Channel stations. Don't like the mix at Star? Then KBIG is a good choice ... it's also a Clear Channel property, as is KOST and Mega 92.3. In fact, you can't tune into a non-urban contemporary music station in Los Angeles without it being a Clear Channel station. Clear Channel also owns all sports KXTA, adult standards KLAC (rumored to be going all sports by the way) and talk leader KFI, accounting for a total of 22.5% of the listening audience in Los Angeles -- almost one quarter of the entire Los Angeles ratings pie.

And if that isn't enough, just try going satellite when subscription radio services launch next month ... Clear Channel is a primary investor in XM Satellite Radio, one of the two satellite music service companies.

What do we get for all that power? Well, certainly no news. Clear Channel has slashed the news departments in every station it owns. It now relies on national news services for the vast majority of its stations -- hardly local. Small markets often have NO local programming, as Clear Channel has a habit of using small market stations to increase the range of its major market stations. It has throughout the country cut entire staffs, essentially removing any way for young broadcasters to begin a career ... or experienced broadcasters to continue. They aren't needed any more, at least not on the 800+ stations Clear Channel owns nationwide.

And it leaves a major market like Los Angeles with radio that doesn't even approach the quality of radio just a few years ago ... with no alternatives for listeners.

The fault lies directly with the FCC, which allowed companies to take on monopoly powers through relaxed ownership limits, limits it is considering dropping altogether.

The time has come for the FCC to take back our airwaves by reinstating ownership limits, as well as requiring local public affairs as it did in the past. At the same time, the Justice Department should examine the practices of companies like Clear Channel, and issue a directive to break up the monopoly just as it broke up the telephone system years ago and just as it is currently trying to break up Microsoft.

Airwaves are ours to enjoy, not theirs to control. Breakup Clear Channel -- and Infinity and ABC -- and return the airwaves to us.


Copyright © 2000 Richard Wagoner and The Copley Press.

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