Sound and Fury
Corporate consolidation has destroyed commercial radio. Here's
how it happened -- and how to make it better.
It's cold in Rick Anderson's office, on the third floor of a red-brick building
just outside Roxbury's Dudley Square. Not see-your-breath, rub-your-hands cold, but
cold enough for Anderson to have topped off his casual attire with a heavy flannel
shirt. Cold enough for a visitor to keep his sports coat on.
Anderson, 41, is the program director of WILD Radio (AM 1090), where he has worked
off and on since 1984. A trim man of medium height, with a shaved head, close-cropped
mustache, and goatee, Anderson speaks in the smooth, confident tones of an experienced
radio announcer. In fact, in addition to his management duties, Anderson works the
afternoon drive time shift, playing new hits by black artists such as SFTP ("My
Love Is the Shhh") and Bobby Brown ("Feelin Inside").
Anderson boasts that these are good times for WILD. Since adopting a format of
what he calls "straight urban music" last year, the station's ratings have
ticked up. And though the station is hardly a threat to ratings monster WJMN (94.5
FM), a/k/a JAM'N, whose music formula occupies the same niche, Anderson insists that
WILD has more credibility in the black community.
"It's all good music," he says. "It's just that at one end it's
done by black people, at the other end it's done by white people. We really know
the music. They do a lot of -- research." Obviously pleased with the
comparison, he leans back in his chair and smiles.
But there's another, even more crucial difference between WILD and WJMN. At a
time when radio has come to be dominated by megacorporations that gobble up multiple
stations in a given market, WILD is one of the last of the independents.
On February 8, 1996, a furious, multimillion-dollar lobbying effort by corporate
interests paid off big time, when Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act
of 1996 into law. Though most of the focus was on the deregulation of the telephone,
cable, and television industries, the law also contained a sweet plum for the radio
industry -- or, rather, for the industry's wealthiest players. Ownership restrictions
in a given market were loosened from four stations to as many as eight. National
restrictions, formerly set at 40 stations, were eliminated altogether.
Not surprisingly, this green light set off a feeding frenzy. More than 4000 of
the nation's 10,000 or so commercial radio stations have changed hands since the
bill's passage. The combined price tag: a whopping $25 billion, or slightly more
than this year's federal budget deficit.
The consolidation of Boston's stations came mainly in two big gulps. The first
took place in June 1996, when Westinghouse Electric Company, owner of CBS Radio,
purchased Infinity Broadcasting for $3.9 billion, creating a nationwide chain of
82 stations. The second came this past September, when Westinghouse bought out American
Radio Systems for $2.6 billion. After the merger is complete, Westinghouse will be
the nation's radio powerhouse. Chancellor Media will have more stations, but Westinghouse/CBS
will have more listeners at any given moment. (See "Monopoly Pieces," page
18, for an explanation of how listenership is measured.)
As a result, Westinghouse/Infinity and ARS control 10 Boston stations, accounting
for some 70 percent of the radio advertising market. Under US Department of Justice
antitrust guidelines, Westinghouse will have to sell or trade stations to get that
figure down to 40 percent before the sale wins final approval, probably in early
1998. That will still make Westinghouse the big bully on the block. And that bully
has the potential to flex its muscle more in the years to come because once it scales
back to 40 percent, there is no cap on future ad-sales growth.
According to the most recent Arbitron ratings, Westinghouse, American Radio Systems,
and two other megaconglomerates, Chancellor Media Corporation and Greater Media,
Inc., own 16 of the top 20 Greater Boston stations, including the entire top seven.
The sole independents: WCRB (102.5 FM), which plays classical music; WFNX (101.7
FM), an alternative-rock station that's a sister company of the Boston Phoenix;
Which is why it's mighty chilly in Rick Anderson's office. Unlike their well-heeled
competitors, Anderson and company have to watch every penny. After all, it's tough
for an independent to sell advertising. Big groups can offer package deals for all
of their stations, sold by account execs with spiffy charts and even spiffier suits.
But the advertising struggle is hardly the only reason that independents find
it increasingly difficult to survive. And it's certainly not the reason listeners
Rather, the corporatization of radio matters because it's destroying a uniquely
intimate medium, replacing real community voices, people with a sense of place and
purpose, with the same soundalike shows in city after city, town after town. Sometimes
the sameness is literal: look at the rise of syndicated hosts such as Howard Stern,
Don Imus, and Rush Limbaugh, making the airwaves of Dubuque, Iowa, indistinguishable
from those of New York, Los Angeles, or Boston. More often, the sameness is one of
similarity, with bland, accent-free disc jockeys (or hyperenergetic shock jocks selling
the same brand of pseudowacky "originality" in market after market) working
from the same computer printouts and spinning the same genre-driven tunes. It's highly
profitable. And it sucks.
Call it the malling of the airwaves.
WILD, by contrast, is a throwback to the days when a radio station made money
by serving an individual, identifiable community. You couldn't transplant
WILD's programming to, say, Winchester. More to the point, you couldn't transplant
it to black neighborhoods in other parts of the country. WILD's audience is Greater
Boston's African-American community. Period.
Take Sundays. The morning begins with four hours of gospel music -- spun, until
his death two weeks ago, by David Adams, who'd been at it since 1969. "We have
to take care of the church community. They are very strong supporters," Rick
Anderson explains, adding: "I grew up listening to David Adams." That's
followed by a program sponsored by the local Nation of Islam; In Unison, a
local talk show; The Caribbean Cruise, for the Caribbean community; and various
in-house and syndicated features on personal finance, health, and other topics. During
the week, WILD broadcasts public-service announcements for the likes of the Roxbury
Community Center and Boston Healthy Start. And then there are special promotional
events such as the recent "WILD's Zoo Howl," a family Halloween celebration
at the Franklin Park Zoo.
Sadly, such a local orientation is often the first thing to go when a station
is acquired by a megacorporation with eyes only for the bottom line. Of course, it's
unfair to condemn all chain-owned radio stations. WBZ (AM 1030), which Westinghouse
has owned for several decades, has long been a model community citizen. But corporate
managers must answer to the shareholders. And to a bean counter in a distant home
office, local programming is just an unnecessary expense.
"Radio as an intensely local, highly individualized service will diminish,"
says Andy Schwartzman, executive director of the Washington-based Media Access Center.
"It's a damn shame."
On to part
Dan Kennedy's work can be accessed from his Web site: http://www1.shore.net/~dkennedy/
Dan Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com