22 June 2007
I've heard better ideas
La Shawn Barber eviscerates that mostly-silly study which calls for Serious Action to counteract all those awful right-wing radio shows that I make a point of not listening to. (She's posted a PDF copy of it here.) For the most part, I agree with her conclusions: the left is trying to gain by governmental means what it likely could never obtain in an actual free marketplace.
But this invites the question: is broadcast radio truly a free marketplace? Certainly the FCC won't stop you from putting up a station of your own provided there's an open allocation, which there probably isn't. (You might be able to wangle an LPFM license, maybe; I can't, at least from where I live, as there are no open channels.)
In 1996, Section 202 of the Telecommunications Act established a sliding scale for how many stations an individual entity could operate in a given market: in the largest markets, up to eight stations can be under common ownership. We've had eleven years of this now, and can anyone actually say that radio is better today? It certainly isn't more profitable: Clear Channel, arguably the Wal-Mart of the industry, went private last year and sold off 30 percent of its stations after a succession of bad quarters. Disney unloaded ABC Radio onto Citadel, who had to unload 11 stations to comply with the Feds. CBS sold ten stations last year. None of this feverish station-trading changed the general sound of things very much.
That said, though, I have a philosophical bias in favor of more players rather than fewer, and the two think tanks who produced that study proposed a change in the cap laws which I don't think would be particularly unreasonable. They recommend a 5-percent cap nationwide no single entity can own or control more than 5 percent of the total number of AM and FM stations (do LPFMs and translators count?) and a reduced cap in individual markets: four in the largest (45 stations and up), three in the next group (30-44), then two, finally one in stations with 14 stations or fewer. Actually counting the stations might prove problematic: Radio-Locator.com lists 47 in and around Oklahoma City, but some of them are clearly duplicates (for instance, KGOU/KROU, or KQCV-FM and its two translators, or the Sports Animal AM/FM pair). I'm thinking we'd fall into the 30-44 group, in which case the local cap would be three. Almost a dozen stations would be up for grabs. There is of course no guarantee that things would suck less; theoretically, they could get worse. But I'm old enough to remember the old 7-7-7 rule: until 1985, you could own a total of 14 radio stations seven AM, seven FM and seven TV stations, no more than five of which could be on the VHF band. Now maybe that's too few for contemporary conditions; but until I see some evidence that ownership of truly huge segments of spectrum actually produces some benefits other than dubious economies of scale, I'm going to continue to believe that the way it was is better than the way it is.
Update, 2 pm: As of yesterday (when I wrote this piece) there is something called the Local Community Radio Act of 2007, which would loosen some of the restrictions on LPFM. Jesse Walker has the story.Posted at 6:28 AM to Overmodulation , Political Science Fiction