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Date: Wed, 26 Feb 2003 12:56:39 -0800
From: radtimes <email@example.com>
Subject: The Day the Protest Music Died
The Trouble With Corporate Radio: The Day the Protest Music Died
By BRENT STAPLES
Pop music played a crucial role in the national debate over the Vietnam
War. By the late 1960's, radio stations across the country were crackling
with blatantly political songs that became mainstream hits. After the
National Guard killed four antiwar demonstrators at Kent State University
in Ohio in the spring of 1970, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young recorded a
song, simply titled "Ohio," about the horror of the event, criticizing
President Richard Nixon by name. The song was rushed onto the air while
sentiment was still high, and became both an antiwar anthem and a huge
A comparable song about George W. Bush's rush to war in Iraq would have no
chance at all today. There are plenty of angry people, many with prime
music-buying demographics. But independent radio stations that once would
have played edgy, political music have been gobbled up by corporations that
control hundreds of stations and have no wish to rock the boat. Corporate
ownership has changed what gets played and who plays it. With a few
exceptions, the disc jockeys who once existed to discover provocative new
music have long since been put out to pasture. The new generation operates
from play lists dictated by Corporate Central lists that some D.J.'s
describe as "wallpaper music."
Recording artists were seen as hysterics when they complained during the
1990's that radio was killing popular music by playing too little of it.
But musicians have turned out to be the canaries in the coal mine the
first group to be affected by a 1996 federal law that allowed corporations
to gobble up hundreds of stations, limiting expression over airwaves that
are merely licensed to broadcasters but owned by the American public.
When a media giant swallows a station, it typically fires the staff and
pipes in music along with something that resembles news via satellite. To
make the local public think that things have remained the same, the voice
track system sometimes includes references to local matters sprinkled into
What my rock 'n' roll colleague William Safire describes as the "ruination
of independent radio" started with corporatizing in the 1980's but took off
dramatically when the Telecommunications Act of 1996 increased the number
of stations that one entity could own in a single market and permitted
companies to buy up as many stations nationally as their deep pockets would
The new rules were billed as an effort to increase radio diversity, but
they appear to have had the opposite effect. Under the old rules, the top
two owners had 115 stations between them. Today, the top two own more than
1,400 stations. In many major markets, a few corporations control 80
percent of the listenership or more.
Liberal Democrats are horrified by the legion of conservative talk show
hosts who dominate the airwaves. But the problem stretches across party
lines. National Journal reported last month that Representative Mark Foley,
Republican of Florida, was finding it difficult to reach his constituents
over the air since national radio companies moved into his district,
reducing the number of local stations from five to one. Senator Byron
Dorgan, Democrat of North Dakota, had a potential disaster in his district
when a freight train carrying anhydrous ammonia derailed, releasing a
deadly cloud over the city of Minot. When the emergency alert system
failed, the police called the town radio stations, six of which are owned
by the corporate giant Clear Channel. According to news accounts, no one
answered the phone at the stations for more than an hour and a half. Three
hundred people were hospitalized, some partially blinded by the ammonia.
Pets and livestock were killed.
The perils of consolidation can be seen clearly in the music world.
Different stations play formats labeled "adult contemporary," "active
rock," "contemporary hit radio" and so on. But studies show that the
formats are often different in name only and that as many as 50 percent of
the songs played in one format can be found in other formats as well. The
point of these sterile play lists is to continually repeat songs that
challenge nothing and no one, blending in large blocks of commercials.
Senator Russell Feingold of Wisconsin has introduced a bill that would
require close scrutiny of mergers that could potentially put the majority
of the country's radio stations in a single corporation's hands. Lawmakers
who missed last month's Senate hearings on this issue should get hold of
the testimony offered by the singer and songwriter Don Henley, best known
as a member of the Eagles, the rock band.
Mr. Henley's Senate testimony recalled the Congressional payola hearings of
1959-60, which showed the public how disc jockeys were accepting bribes to
spin records on the air. Now, Mr. Henley said, record companies must pay
large sums to "independent promoters," who intercede with radio
conglomerates to get songs on the air. Those fees, Mr. Henley said in a
recent telephone interview, sometimes reach $400,000.
Which brings us back to the hypothetical pop song attacking George Bush.
The odds against such a song reaching the air are steep from the outset,
given a conservative corporate structure that controls thousands of
stations. Record executives who know the lay of land take the path of least
resistance when deciding where to spend their promotional money. This
flight to sameness and superficiality is narrowing the range of what
Americans hear on the radio - and killing popular music.
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