Representing the Recording Artists Coalition, Don Henley appeared before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee yesterday to encourage legislation to temper the consolidation of the radio and concert industries.
At the center of the debate is the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which further loosened restrictions on ownership of multiple radio stations. Senator Russ Feingold (D-Wisconsin) has sponsored a bill that would serve two purposes: Increase governmental regulation of radio station mergers and eliminate record label payments to radio stations for air time.
"Getting on the radio, in one way or another, is the holy grail of our business," Henley told the committee. "In a perfect world, merit would determine which records get played on radio. But this is far from a perfect world."
Henley praised the early years of FM radio in which independent stations offered listeners a broader array of music styles and genres, and he faulted the purchase of indie stations by larger corporations for creating uniform radio playlists. "Listeners were encouraged to explore different styles and to stretch the boundaries of their tastes," he said. "The idea was not to fragment society into what is now called demographics, but rather to bring people together . . . [Today] a recording artist has a much better chance of getting radio airplay if the promotional budget for a record is large than if the record is good. . . . This unprecedented control over the music industry by the conglomerates is hurting the music business and the culture."
According to figures offered by Senator John McCain (R-Arizona), who chairs the committee, Clear Channel Communications alone has grown from sixty stations before the 1996 Telecommunications Act to 1,200.
Deregulation was further vilified for allowing the same conglomerates that owned several radio stations, to also own live music venues, agencies and promotional companies, which Henley called an "institutionalized conflict of interest."
In his opening statements, McCain called himself "a firm believer in free market principles," claiming that "anachronistic government regulations do not reflect today's multimedia marketplace." The Senator plans to offer his own Telecommunications Ownership Diversification Act, which would offer tax deferrals and market-based incentives to help smaller businesses.
In contrast to Henley's testimony, Clear Channel chairman and CEO Lowry Mays called the radio industry "healthier and more robust today than ever before." Mays cited radio slumps in the late Eighties and early Nineties as proof that the 1996 act had a positive impact. "With the ability to own more stations, both locally and nationally, radio companies could create economies of scale and benefit from the substantial cost savings that result," Mays said. He also noted that Clear Channel's 1,200 stations represented only nine percent of radio stations in the country, unlike cable television where the top ten companies own eighty-nine percent of the revenues, and film, where the ten biggest companies own ninety-nine percent.
Troubles caused by radio deregulation have been a pet pursuit of several artists, many of whom, like Henley, express nostalgia for the FM of yesteryear. The consolidation informed Tom Petty's most recent release, The Last DJ, an indictment of industry practices with regards to radio and concerts, the title track from which was banned from several radio play lists last fall. "I don't really give a flying fuck about any of it," Petty told Rolling Stone. "But I was elated when my song was banned. In 2002, to have a song banned that doesn't have a dirty word, doesn't advocate violence -- it's fascinating. I remember when the radio meant something. We enjoyed the people who were on it, even if we hated them. They had personalities. They were people of taste, who we trusted. And I see that vanishing."