Sound and Fury

Corporate consolidation has destroyed commercial radio. Here's how it happened -- and how to make it better.

by Dan Kennedy

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; and WILD.

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 should care.

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 2


Dan Kennedy's work can be accessed from his Web site: http://www1.shore.net/~dkennedy/

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy@phx.com