July 17th, 1999
(Low) Power (FM) to the People
By Ralph Nader
Ever wonder why radio generally has become so canned, flat and insipid, bereft of local news, stuffed with commercials, mercantile values and the same old, tired junk, not to mention the downright offensiveness of Howard Stern and the other shock jocks?
First, for years, over 90% of all radio time is composed of entertainment (music) and advertisements. In addition, in the last three years, diversity in radio station ownership has been collapsing. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 raised the number of radio outlets that any single corporation may own in any market, which loosed a flood of radio company mergers. So, station ownership is not only concentrated in fewer corporate hands, but formulaic programming takes the few reporters left and local coverage to the back seat.
Two conglomerates own over 400 radio stations each, all over the country. One woman complained about the sameness of Cleveland radio, following two huge radio company mergers: “It’s as though McDonald’s bought every restaurant in town and all you could get was a Big Mac.”
The purpose of these corporate radio mega-conglomerates is to maximize profits by reducing costs of reporters and editors—not to enrich public discourse or cover the news in their areas. Market forces have not led to a vigorous radio culture, or thoughtful programming, or programming that gives voice to the community.
In their quest for larger audiences, more advertising and greater profits, commercial broadcasters cater to the basest standards, with ever more blatant effusions of crassness, sex talk and nihilism. Commercial rewards drive the creation, production and marketing of ever more Howard Sterns, Greasemans, shock jocks and the rest.
This inevitably leads to a coarsening of our culture, which has particularly harmful effects on children.
Even “public” radio is becoming commercialized. National Public Radio now carries many ever longer “underwriting messages”—which are a form of advertisement.
Meanwhile, the public is mostly silent on the airwaves that we legally own.
Radio is supposed to serve the ends and purposes of the First Amendment: to protect public discourse, which is essential to our form of democratic self-government.
But the current regulatory regime for radio serves to thwart the First Amendment rights and interests of most Americans. We speak little, if at all, on our own airwaves, while the wealthy may speak through radio by controlling who uses their stations and for what purposes.
What good is freedom of speech if nobody can afford it? Is speech truly free if only the wealthy can buy it?
Here’s the good news: at last, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) may come to the rescue.
Right now, the FCC is considering whether to set up noncommercial low-power FM (LPFM) radio stations of up to 100 watts, with a range of a few miles. That’s a big deal. Imagine the new voices that could flourish on these micro-stations—service and advocacy groups, universities, community and civic organizations, ethnic groups, arts organizations, seniors groups and others.
They could really liven up the radio dial. They could give us some choices.
But it is not enough merely to authorize LPFM service. The FCC should allocate more spectrum for low power radio broadcasting, and introduce it when radio switches from analog to digital signals.
These small stations could enrich the public’s understanding of civic issues and social problems. They could be a modest but important step toward more cohesive communities, a renewed public discourse and a richer and more realistic culture. It is not often that a federal agency could achieve so much with so little.
Americans are drowning in a sea of commercialism. Americans are immersed in advertisements, junk mail, junk faxes, tv and radio ads, telemarketing, billboards and more. There are ads in schools, beach sand, airport lounges, doctors offices, hospitals, convenience stores, floors of supermarkets, toilet stalls, on the Internet, and countless other places. Advertisers even tried, unsuccessfully, to put ads in space and on postage stamps. Tom Vanderbilt, author of The Sneaker Book, writes of advertisers’ effort to “hang a jingle in front of America’s every waking moment.”
Three cheers for the Microradio Empowerment Coalition, a coalition of microradio stations, community and civic groups, organizations, and individuals which is working to make non-commercial LPFM radio a reality.
There is a profound need in America today for public spaces in which people can talk to one another. We don’t need more advertising talking at us. Can’t we have just a few spaces—niches really—that are free from advertising—sanctuaries, in effect? Is that too much to ask?
The FCC ought use its authority to establish non-commercial LPFM stations—to build a stronger democracy in America, and serve a vision grander than the profit-driven trivialization of most of the broadcasting and advertising industries. The FCC was not intended to merely protect the speech rights of broadcasters, advertisers and the wealthy. It ought to uphold and protect the public’s First Amendment interests in radio, to rededicate radio to the service of democracy in America. Non-commercial LPFM radio is one modest step toward that goal.