A Clear Imbalance

The Dog Days of Capitalism

“These days,” an expression that either premises or concludes a woeful commentary of today’s tastes, is usually followed by a sigh. These days, a single corporation such as Clear Channel Communications can grow unchecked to net one billion listeners worldwide, and has say in just about every pop act’s publicity. Indeed, these days are not conducive to mainstream radio fans who just want to hear why so many bands are catchy enough for TV commercials but, evidently, aren’t catchy enough for private radio.

All types of widely respected artists, including Iggy Pop, Air, Stereolab and The Ravenettes, are consistently used in advertisements, despite their conspicuous silence over the airwaves. Even the breakout band of the year, Franz Ferdinand, is having the same trouble. From Europe to the States, the group’s self-titled debut has made the biggest splash since The Strokes’ Is This It? Ironically, the last place anyone heard of the band was on the radio. With the exception of publicly sponsored stations, FM has become little more than a continuous advertisement.

Featuring a program called Sunday School, WSUN-FM, or 97X, is part of a nationwide effort of selected stations to find a more quality-oriented play list with old favorites including The Cure, Dead Kennedys and Fugazi. Such programs, however, are turning these bands into the new “classic rock.” They repeatedly play the same hits, much like the older rock stations that play the same four Lynyrd Skynyrd songs over and over again.

But what about other bands still not considered in this new classic rock, and what about current bands?

“Franz Ferdinand is definitely hot! We’ve all been diggin’ it in the office,” said 97X DJ Ford Prefect. He was doubtful in early May of this year that the band would show up on anyone’s play list in the near future of privately owned FM radio. “There’s just so much politics [about what makes the play list],” he said.

Money Before Music

Unlike 97X, no station owned by media behemoth Clear Channel features a program such as Sunday School. Most of what radio listeners hear is from Clear Channel, the largest radio station owner in the U.S., selling airtime to some 1,270 stations. This includes dominion over five major FM stations in Tampa. The company also owns SFX Entertainment, the dominant touring promoter and concert-venue owner in the U.S.

Tampa’s newly finished Ford Amphitheater is a local example of this dubious set-up, whereby a pop act’s entire tour, including advertisement in any medium, is uniformly controlled by one company. Clear Channel, who wants to share tens of millions of dollars with record labels under the buffer of promotional payments, stinks of a similar corporate bribery formerly called “payola.”

Payola refers to a bribe given to disc jockeys to promote particular records. These days, however, so called “indies,” or independent record promoters, act as the lobbyists of the record industry.

These surreptitious middlemen potentially receive millions of dollars a year from record companies to get songs played on the radio. Indies can set themselves up with a radio station and promise six digits worth of “promotional payments.” Then, every time the station adds a Limp Bizkit type of song to their list, the lobbyist in the middle snags payment from the record label.

In the nation’s 250 biggest radio markets, Clear Channel owns 248 stations, and is such a phenomenon that it’s bound for the indie problem. A virtual monopoly plus a conspicuous lack of business ethics equals the barren landscape of all major FM radio stations today.

Research, Research, Research

“We’re not going to play a band just to do something different; we’re in business to generate revenue,” said Dave Reinhart, Clear Channel’s Gulf coast regional vice president and marketing manager.

Reinhart dismissed any payoff schemes and insisted Clear Channel’s methods consist of nothing more than “research, research, research.”

He said research is done on a call-out basis using hooks, which are short pieces of a song. The longer the interest level on these hooks, the more likely the song will be played. He added, “We get input from many different types of people.”

But what about the old days? 40 years ago, when the Beach Boys put out a new single, you’d likely hear it on the radio if it were good, without the research.

“Back then it was based on gut feeling. I know because I was a program director. We’d review new releases,” Reinhart said, “but the research of today is solid.”

Years ago, government regulations severely restrained radio companies from owning too many stations. Companies could have only two stations in one market, with up to 28 allowed nationwide. These rules were meant to maintain a diverse ownership. That changed in 1996 with the Telecommunications Act, signed into law by former president Bill Clinton. The act essentially disregards radio’s ownership restrictions. Since then, only a few companies have come into controlling America’s largest radio markets.

The Myth of Reality

“Nothing has done more to homogenize the programming of music and consolidate media than the Telecommunications Act,” said Robert Pomeroy, a political activist and DJ for WMNF 88.5, Tampa’s community radio station. To make matters worse, Pomeroy mentions, are powerful agents fighting to further deregulate media regulations on ownership, namely FCC chairman Michael Powell, son of Secretary of State Colin Powell. Due to a frenzy of negative public feedback, Powell’s efforts have remained unsuccessful thus far.

The consolidation of media is the phenomenon into which members of society inevitably run, and often battle against, unless otherwise part of giant corporations like Clear Channel, which owns billboard companies, concert halls and booking agencies.

“It’s almost impossible to act outside of them [Clear Channel],” Pomeroy said. To make matters worse, Pomeroy mentions, are powerful agents fighting to further deregulate media regulations on ownership, namely FCC chairman Michael Powell, son of Secretary of State Colin Powell. Due to a frenzy of negative public feedback, Powell’s efforts have remained unsuccessful thus far.

A target as big as Clear Channel has drawn so many critics that, on its web site under “Radio” and then “Know the Facts,” Clear Channel has defined and argued against the grievances set against itself. The page features a series of “Myth” and “Reality” sections, and under the latter it posits research, the sovereignty of individual stations and their increase in the number of “unique” songs by 15,315 and “unique” artists by 3,093 between 1998 and 2002. The “reality” of this entrepreneurship seems counterproductive to regional VP Dave Reinhart’s solemn oath to “generate revenue.”

What is the purpose of Clear Channel’s apparent altruism in “unique” material? Not to mention the obvious question, ‘What exactly is unique to them?’ In the end, this is the politician’s maxim: Let the people decide.

When asked to comment on how she felt about the state of radio in Tampa, rock musician and USF student Rebecca Lima replied, “I’m routinely disheartened by what looks like a general disdain for anything that isn’t popular on MTV, mass produced or foolishly accepted by the average radio listener.”

These days, enough unsatisfied listeners will continue to sigh while surfing the airwaves. If they listen carefully, however, they may discern a few bars from Franz Ferdinand on one, or maybe two, of the stations.