February 28, 2007

A Look at Radio Industry Consolidation [8:10 am]

Saving Radio in the Satellite Era

The more urgent challenge is to begin searching for alternate ways to revive radio. Consolidation is not the only option. Today broadcast stations are beginning to convert their signals to the digital spectrum, which allows for each owner to operate multiple stations in the same space. To date, the F.C.C. has imposed few restrictions on the way radio stations use these new outlets. The commission is both giving away a precious public resource and squandering a historic opportunity to enliven the airwaves.

Fortunately, there is a solution: Require every station that wants to add to its holdings to broadcast a minimum level of original, live and local material. This proposal is based on one of the most successful broadcast policies in American history. In the 1960s, when the F.C.C. opened the FM dial, AM stations rushed to acquire licenses — but then simulcast the same shows they were already playing. This was not what regulators had in mind, so they ruled that FM stations had to play original content on at least half of their programming hours. Because radio companies didn’t want to invest much in FM, they ceded control of their studios to young people and amateur broadcasters. The result was the advent of free-form music radio, with programs so fresh and compelling that listeners flocked to FM and stayed there — at least until corporate broadcasters standardized it, too.

It’s time for Congress and the F.C.C. to consider policy ideas intended to serve the public interest, like requiring broadcast radio stations to air original programming on the new digital stations, or allowing satellite companies to run local news, talk and music. Mega-mergers are unlikely to provide any real benefits to citizens and consumers. Why resort to even more consolidation when we already know it doesn’t work?

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