The radio industry is staggeringly uniform. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently reported that only 7% of FM stations are owned by women and less than 3% of FM licenses belong to minority broadcasters. Estimates suggest that the number of stations black-owned radio stations has been cut in half since 1996.
These numbers are bad enough, but on Monday, civil rights groups, media and consumer advocates and many in the music industry mobilized to fight a rule change they say will make the situation even worse.
The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), a lobbying group that represents many of the biggest conglomerates in radio, is asking the FCC to loosen its limits on radio ownership in large and medium markets and to eliminate any limits in small markets. If this proposal passes, it would allow the airwaves for entire regions to fall under monopolistic rule. The NAB says these changes are necessary if radio is to have any hope of competing with the wide-reaching streaming options that have become popular in recent years.
Those who oppose the NAB say that the big chains that currently dominate the airwaves are hoping to exploit the rise of streaming to remove a barrier to further expansion. And with that expansion will come a further reduction in diversity — in terms of who owns the airwaves, and what is played over them. (Two of the big radio chains, iHeartMedia and Cumulus, declined to comment. A third chain, Entercom, did not respond to a request for comment.)
The fate of the NAB’s proposal is decided by the FCC, an organization that is tasked with protecting the public interest. Rachel Stilwell, a music attorney who serves as outside counsel for the musicFIRST Coalition (which includes the Recording Academy and the American Association of Independent Music, among other groups) and the Future of Music Coalition (a non-profit think tank that fights to “put artists first”), explains that championing the public interest is legally supposed to mean cultivating competition, supporting localism and nurturing diversity.
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Stilwell and her allies argue that if the FCC were to approval the NAB’s request, it would be ignoring all three components of its mandate. By shifting the competitive focus to large international tech companies, the NAB’s opponents say it is actually hoping to reduce competition further within its own industry — clearing the way for large conglomerates to get even larger.
“[The NAB’s proposal] is not good for listeners, smaller broadcasters, or music creators,” says Rachel Stilwell, a music attorney
“If the NAB proposal is passed, it would allow for monopolies in smaller U.S. markets, and further radio consolidation in large and medium markets,” Stilwell says. “That’s not good for listeners, smaller broadcasters, or music creators.” “This rule increases unfair competition and harms the radio broadcast industry,” added Saul Levine, who owns Mount Wilson Broadcasters, a small independent radio company, in comments filed to the FCC last week.
And while big radio chains and independent local broadcasters are often in direct competition, the same is not necessarily true for radio and streaming services. Though both provide music to a wide swathe of listeners, the first is free for all, while the second requires an internet connection and (often) the means to pay a monthly subscription fee. “To say that streaming is a replacement for radio, particular for people of color or other people in marginalized communities, is simply not true,” says Daiquiri Ryan, policy counsel at the National Hispanic Media Coalition, another organization that opposes the NAB’s request. “Over a third of Latino families do not have access to the internet at home. How can you say that an online service is an adequate replacement for free programming over the air?”
The second pillar of the FCC’s mandate revolves around localism. The NAB asserts that “outdated rules that apply only to radio have a real-world impact on stations’ ability to serve their local areas.” By loosening ownership restrictions, the NAB claims that local stations can “take greater advantage of economies of scale.”
Karen Slade, vice president and general manager of the independently owned KJLH in Los Angeles, takes the opposite view, contending that the wave of consolidation that occurred in the aftermath of the 1996 Telecommunications Act — a deregulatory bill that allowed owners to gobble up hundreds of stations — is largely responsible for the demise of local radio. “We’ve gotten so far from local owners that radio is almost unrecognizable now,” she says. “It’s dominated by massive corporate structures, and the communities that we need to service get lost in the shuffle between the giants.”
And in the two decades that have passed since the Telecommunications Act, few local stations have been able to capitalize on “economies of scale” without losing any semblance of local-ness. “Historically, consolidation has exacerbated the use of syndicated programming, whereby local air talent is replaced by syndicated programming with an on-air host from far away,” Stilwell says. “That inherently homogenizes viewpoints — and music played — across the country, but it also means that there are fewer local DJs talking about local things that matter deeply to their own communities.” In 2017, the FCC dispensed with the “main studio rule,” meaning that radio stations were no longer required to even have a single physical office in the community where their programming originates.
The third responsibility of the FCC is to protect diversity. In its initial letter to the FCC, the NAB argued that “increased common ownership should enhance radio programming diversity,” though it did not say how. The organization declined to comment further. In new comments filed on Monday, the NAB added that “the FCC has not relied on its diversity or localism goals as the basis for retaining the [local ownership] rule” in the past.
But Jessica González, vice president of strategy and senior counsel for Free Press, a media watchdog group, calls the FCC’s decision to consider further deregulation “an appalling punting on its responsibility to promote diversity.” Free Press is currently engaged in litigation with the FCC around this issue. “The court has told the FCC in three previous rounds of this litigation that before it considers further consolidation it must first consider the impact that would have on diversity and voices in the industry,” González add. “It has failed to do that.”
Richard James Burgess, the CEO of the American Association of Independent Music (A2IM), identifies two routes by which new rounds of consolidation could lead to another wave of homogenization. “Rollups [that occur after ownership restrictions are loosened] often sweep up minority-owned stations [the few that remain] and then convert them to whatever is convenient for the conglomerate in that market,” Burgess says. “Maybe they decide they want sports talk instead of Latino-focused programming.”
Consolidation also hurts diversity of musical choice on the airwaves. “When you get centralized programming, you have a smaller group of people making the decisions,” Burgess continues. “Any biases are going to be magnified across the larger number of stations that they program for.”
The effects of those biases are already evident on the airwaves today. Pop radio is reluctant to play non-white rappers even though they make the most popular music. Country radio refuses to play female artists. Rap radio also rarely supports women. The responsibility for these disparities doesn’t sit solely with radio — programmers’ choices are governed in part by major labels, which are in no way paragons of equality — but radio, in its current form, consistently chooses homogeneity, helping to ensure that these disparities remain a part of the status quo.
If the FCC agrees to the NAB’s proposal, and its decision is not challenged and subsequently overturned in court, another wave of consolidation seems likely to exacerbate these imbalances. “I can’t think of anybody it’s going to be good for,” A2IM’s Burgess says of the NAB’s proposal, “other than the companies that want to consolidate.”