More Stations, Less Variety: Battling Media Giants for Control of Chicago’s Radio Dial

Posted by Mitchell - January 4, 2005 (entry 268)

Published in the January 2005 issue of Conscious Choice magazine

More Stations, Less Variety

Battling Media Giants for Control
of Chicago’s Radio Dial

by Barbara K. Iverson

Derrick Hill, a talk-show host for local station V103, was walking in the Loop when he heard a screeching chorus of emergency sirens. Hill, a reporter at heart, rushed to the corner of Wabash Avenue and Randolph Street where he encountered a bloody scene. An elderly woman had lost control of her car and hit 12 pedestrians, who were strewn about the intersection. Five would eventually die from their injuries.

Hill immediately placed a call to his station and described the scene. When the news director asked him to go on the air, Hill, a pre-med student in college, replied: “I have no time to report, I have to help someone.” But the station aired his phone call, anyway. Even when he didn’t think he was reporting, Hill’s account of the scene was good. So good he won a prestigious Edward R. Murrow Award for his compassion and coverage for his Oct. 8, 1997, report.

Would such on-the-scene coverage be possible today? Not likely.

Currently, Hill works as the press spokesman for Chicago Housing Authority CEO Terry Peterson. He is committed and passionate about his job and said he is not interested in returning to radio, even though he admits his dream radio job would be an evening broadcast with music for listeners ages 32 to 55 interspersed with talk about “real subjects.”

But the radio landscape has changed so much since radio ownership consolidation that Hill is resigned to the fact that his broadcast days are probably over. “It just wasn’t me anymore,” he said. “It was unstable because of cutbacks, no competition, and the networks didn’t want creativity.”

Compared to other cities, Chicago’s radio news climate is stronger, but it’s diminished from what it was in the not so distant past. Only a handful of AM radio stations, including WGN, WLS and WBBM still send reporters to events such as Chicago City Council meetings. But within the past five years the city’s news radio presence has declined, with cutbacks or the demise of news teams on both relatively new and established radio stations. WXRT-FM, which hit the airwaves in 1972 as an underground rock station, cut its independent news teams because of competition from 24-hour news services available on the Internet, according to WXRT Program Manager Norm Winer. WMAQ-AM 670 which began broadcasting in 1922, and provided news 24 hours a day since 1988 to countless Chicago area residents, became a victim to consolidation in 2000 when CBS Inc. and Viacom Corp. merged. Federal ownership rules mandated CBS sell one of its Chicago radio stations and WMAQ got the axe. The all-news station became “The Score” WSCR, a sports-talk station. The demise of WMAQ leaves Chicago with only one all-news station: WBBM-AM, which has about a dozen reporters, but many have other duties and some work part-time.

So What’s Happening to the Live Talent?

Voice tracking and syndication are replacing live broadcasts. Thanks to digital audio, a disc jockey can download spots to cut and paste into a program that simulates a live, local broadcast. Listeners don’t know that what they hear is canned programming featuring a voice-tracked “cyberjock.”

A handful of corporate owners control 65 percent of the radio stations in Chicago, the third largest radio market in the nation. Infinity (Viacom) and Clear Channel control seven Chicago-area stations each. Disney/ABC owns four.

The Chicago Tribune Company owns Superstation WGN-TV, WGN-radio, CLTV on cable, the Chicago Tribune newspaper, Red-Eye, Hoy and Chicago Magazine. Nationally, it owns 13 newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, 26 television broadcast outlets, one radio station, two magazines and several internet service businesses. It is allowed this cross ownership in the same market because it acquired some of its properties before rules existed limiting such practices.

Clear Channel, a radio and promotional giant, owns more than 1,200 radio stations across the U.S, as well as about 40 TV stations, 44 amphitheaters, 51 theaters, and 114,000 billboards and outdoor displays.

Clear Channel has even grabbed a lion’s share of the local Spanish radio market. Hispanic Broadcast Corp./Univision (HBC) and Spanish Broadcast Corp. own eight of nine stations that broadcast in Spanish in Chicago. Clear Channel is the largest shareholder in HBC, which is owned by a non-Hispanic.

There’s only one non-Hispanic ethnic station in Chicago that sells time to programmers, and there are only two independent minority-owned African-American radio stations. There isn’t one black talk radio show on a high-power station, according to Cheryl Morton Langston, the program director at Columbia College’s WCRX radio station and former news operations manager at WMAQ and WIND, and KDKA in Philadelphia.

Want to just listen to music? Well, most stations feature “wall-to-wall” music but the selections are homogenized. Play lists are drawn up to promote artists signed to companies owned by the same mega-corporations that own the radio stations. This is vertical integration. This is profitable. This is commercial radio today.

So what’s a frustrated radio listener to do? Plenty.

A recent ruling by a Federal Appeals court and pending congressional and state legislation have cracked open the window to allow public pressure to bust open the media markets across the country. (See accompanying sidebar).

But First, Some History

Congress established the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on June 19, 1934, to create “a rapid, efficient, nation-wide, and world-wide wire and radio communication service.” and to pre-empt any monopolization of the media that was occurring in countries such as Nazi Germany in the 1930s. The original purpose of the FCC, to license and regulate communication media in “the public interest, convenience, or necessity” comes first from the Radio Act of 1927, and then from the Communications Act of 1934.

To guarantee a free marketplace of ideas, the FCC put limits on cross-ownership, first outlawed in 1975, where one company or individual can own both broadcast outlets and newspapers in any single market. The FCC also placed limits on the percentage of the national broadcast market that a single owner could claim.

“The Fairness Doctrine” of the FCC required broadcasters to provide fair and balanced coverage of controversial issues and avoid using the airwaves to promote a single point of view. It was part of the Radio Act of 1927, and the Communication Act of 1934. It required license holders to act like public trustees of the airwaves because there were many more requests for broadcasting licenses than there were stations.

However, the Fairness Doctrine was a mandate, not a law. In 1987, both houses of Congress moved to make the doctrine into law, but President Ronald Reagan vetoed it. Congress attempted to enact the law under the first President George Bush, but he vetoed it, too.

But that was only the beginning of the separation of the FCC from its original mission. The FCC set the stage for consolidation of ownership in local markets and nationwide with the Telecommunications Act of 1996. That act raised the number of stations a single owner could license across the country and allowed cross ownership.

The five-member FCC is bipartisan by definition — no more than three members can be from the same political party. But with the appointment of Michael Powell, a conservative and son of Colin Powell, first appointed by President Bill Clinton and later made FCC chair by George W. Bush, the commission has been bullish on big media. Commissioners Kathleen Abernathy and Kevin Martin tend to take Powell’s side. Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, often in the minority, take an active part in the FCC Town Meetings and support media reform.

Another rollback of the rules came in June, 2003. That’s when a divided FCC passed a further relaxation of ownership rules that allowed a single company to own 45 percent of the national market, (up from 35 percent), and allowed even more cross-ownership for companies that had within their media holdings newspapers, television stations, radio stations and cable systems.

But the FCC found itself in the middle of a public relations disaster. The 2003 rules rollback led to a public outcry and the forging of an unusual alliance of activists from the far left, the far right and everyone between. All feared that their ability to get out their message would be overshadowed by a profit-driven, consumer-product generated media oligarchy.

Nearly 3 million people from groups as diverse as the conservative National Rifle Association, and Traditional Values Coaliton to the progressive Common Cause and MoveOn.org, registered their displeasure with the FCC. By last November more than 2,000 people showed up from across the nation to a Media Reform Conference in Madison, Wis.

All of this added up to an unprecedented victory for media diversity when on June 24, 2004, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit Court in Philadelphia issued a stay of the 2003 rule changes the FCC had announced. The court ruled that the cap on how much of the nationwide audience one owner could reach can rise from 35 percent to 39 percent but ordered the FCC to draft new rules on cross-media ownership, and revise its technical notes, which spell out the reasons for FCC rules. It also ordered the FCC to include the methods the FCC uses to define markets, test for diversity, and other issues it regulates.

“This is the most resounding victory for minority media ownership in a generation,” said David Honig of the Minority Media Telecommunication Council, a non-profit corporation based in Washington, D.C., in a recent statement.

That’s an impressive accomplishment, considering that the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics said that Clear Channel gave more than any other entertainment corporation in political contributions. President George W. Bush, received $42,000 from Clear Channel during the 2004 presidential race and vowed to veto any media reform legislation. Clear Channel’s political action committee donated more than $25,000 in federal contributions to Republicans in 2004, according to opensecrets.org, the center’s official Web site.

The public outcry led to a legislative response. Between June, 2003, and the appeals court ruling in June, 2004, a series of media reform bills passed in the Senate. However, they were held in committee by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. (See sidebar).

The FCC is sponsoring forums around the country. FreePress.org keeps a current listing of these forums. The FCC is obligated by law to consider public comments as it rewrites its rules for the court. Those who cannot attend hearings can write or e-mail the FCC. The FCC Web site is http://www.fcc.gov.

In addition, a proposal to re-enact the Fairness Doctrine is before the Illinois House this year. If it passes, local groups will be able challenge opinion and editorial broadcasts without charge. Urging your Illinois legislators to pass this bill can boost local radio’s signal.

No News Isn’t Good News In A Democracy Or An Emergency

You won’t hear about these actions on the air, because most of the city’s remaining radio talent fear losing their jobs if they if they speak out.

“You fire one [reporter] and you put a hundred on notice,” noted media activist filmmaker Robert Kane Pappas at a summer screening of “Orwell Rolls in His Grave,” in Chicago.

Radio and broadcast agencies play a significant role in keeping democracy strong but the independence of journalists isn’t spelled out by law, notes Robert McChesney, University of Illinois professor, author, and co-founder of FreePress, a nonpartisan media watchdog group. McChesney makes it clear that pressure for profits is putting commercial values, not news values, in charge of journalism today. The public’s right to know plays second-fiddle to corporations’ desire to make a buck, he said.

In emergencies, when the power fails and TV goes dark, radio is a lifeline. Clear Channel doesn’t do news, said Sun-Times Television/Radio columnist Robert Feder, who pointed out that no news isn’t good news in an emergency.

The most chilling example of this happened in January, 2002, in Minot, N. D., when a train carrying anhydrous ammonia fertilizer derailed and spread a cloud of poisonous gas over the town, leading to one death and several injuries.

At the time of the incident, Clear Channel operated its six channels in Minot with only one full-time news employee. When emergency personnel from the police, sheriff, and fire departments called the local emergency broadcast radio station to put out an alert and evacuation order, no one answered the phone.

“Because of the time of day the two local television stations were off the air and had no staff available to take a telephone call. The local radio stations are using a satellite feed and do not have any staff available to take calls. KCJB [the FCC designated emergency channel] had one person working and this person would not answer the telephone,” read the police correspondence from the National Transportation Board hearings into the incident.

A spokesperson for Clear Channel blamed local authorities for the failure of the emergency warning system. In 1997, the FCC announced that the Emergency Disaster System (EDS) equipment requiring a live operator was being replaced with the automated Emergency Alert System (EAS) equipment. In the Minot mishap, the police and sheriff could not or did not use the EAS system, and tried to revert to the EDS, according to a spokesperson for Clear Channel. “There wasn’t anything Clear Channel could do,” stated their spokesperson. “The sheriff publically blamed Clear Channel, but apologized privately.”

The Air Is Free

Media giants argue they should be allowed more ownership under free-market economy rules, but free-market rules don’t apply to radio, because radio licensees are granted use of the airwaves, but pay nothing for them, Feder said.

And not all radio signals are created equal. One station may be picked up over several states. Another might be hard to receive a few miles from its transmitter. The FCC regulates the frequencies, call letters, and classes of radio stations, as well as who can own stations.

The nature of radio limits the number of AM and FM frequencies that can broadcast without interference. The most powerful FM stations’ maximum broadcast range is about 50 miles, generally in a circle around their transmitter. Unless you own several stations and use a repeater, you can’t broadcast FM cross-country. Some AM signals, especially at night, can be heard for great distances, depending on the weather.

The FCC determines which frequencies are available. Currently all available frequencies are leased. When a license becomes available, the FCC simply auctions the license off to the highest bidder.

Satellite subscription radio and Internet streaming can increase the number of radio outlets, too. But satellite radio is like cable, and you have to pay for it. Internet radio only works well if you have broadband.

Low-power Radio

The FCC can grant licenses to broadcast on new frequencies that do not interfere with existing channels. Technology, in the form of low-power FM (LPFM) radio spectrum use, can provide low-cost non-commercial broadcasting opportunities, but it has drawbacks.

On June 4, 2004, John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) introduced a bill that would enable LPFM bands to be assigned to communities across the country. LPFM can provide lots of new channels and access to a variety of programming for wards, neighborhoods, parishes, schools and small communities but LPFM has only a limited broadcast range (one to three miles) like similar currently licensed low-frequency, lower-power stations.

In Chicagoland, LPFM can’t cover the market, so it won’t be a major player or solution, according to Feder.

Non-commercial broadcast licenses for the lower-frequency FM band owned by colleges and universities typically provide more diverse voices and choices of programming on the radio dial. However, their licenses aren’t protected for non-commercial uses. Many radio stations are struggling to pay their bills and licenses are auctioned to the highest bidder, in effect silencing another independent voice.

For instance, WNIB, a classical music station operated by a local couple who virtually lived in the studio, cost $8,000 in 1955. With an audience of 350,000, it was valuable property in 2001 when it sold to Bonneville Corp. for more than $160 million, and was transformed into WDRV 97.1, devoted to a “no-hype celebration of timeless rock.”

Democracy When?

Grassroots efforts to bring Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez’s Democracy Now! to Chicago have gotten it on WZRD FM 88.3 on the Northwest Side and WRTE FM 90.5 in Pilsen with WLUW FM 88.7 from Lincoln Park announcing that it is adding Democracy Now! in January.

Democracy Now! supporters tried to pressure Chicago Public Radio WBEZ FM 91.5 by flooding the station with calls and e-mails asking for the program, but Ron Jones, WBEZ’s vice president of programming, said there were no plans to alter the station’s lineup because it is “working well” and other stations carry it. The WBEZ listener comment line is (312) 948-4701.

Chicago Media Action’s (CMA) Mitchell Szczepanczyk said the group will work to get suburban stations to add Democracy Now! To contact CMA, call (866) 260-7198.

Satellite Radio

Will broadcast radio fade in the face of competition from subscription satellite radio? Shock jock Howard Stern and Sirius Satellite Radio are banking on it. Sirius will begin to host Stern’s program in January 2006.

The two big satellite players are Sirius and XM Satellite Radio. Users buy a satellite radio, usually for an auto and subscribe to one of the services to get access to the commercial-free channels each company provides. Sirius charges $12.99/month and XM charges $9.99/month.

Currently Sirius has about a million subscribers. XM is bigger with about three million signed up. The Sirius management thinks Howard Stern can bring some of his 10 million listeners over to satellite when he moves. If they can sign at least a million, Howard’s deal will pay off for them.

Until recently, satellite radio listeners usually received their first radio as part of a new car deal for about $100. However, in October, Delphi announced the first portable, personal satellite radio, called “MiFi.” The device lets a listener on the go leave the car with XM channels. The Mifi costs several hundred dollars, plus the subscription fee.

Since satellite radio is a subscriber service it is not accessible to everyone, especially society’s most disempowered elements, including the poor, so it is not a viable solution to issues of media access in matters of public interest.

Small Success Stories

One Chicago success story is Loyola University’s WLUW. The North Side station faced an uncertain future until its non-commercial status was saved by a management arrangement with Chicago Public Radio. Loyola retains the radio license. The format of local and community focused programs was retained.

On the South Side, “Nine FM” (99.9 FM) began broadcasting 24 hours a day in July from Park Forest. Its range is the southern suburbs and the South Side of Chicago. It is owned by WSBC Broadcasting.

Nine promises no more than nine minutes of commercials per hour and to “play anything, not everything.” Contrasted with the typical 14 minutes of commercials per hour, that means two hours more music per day than other commercial radio stations.

The message might be getting through to the industry. In July, John E. Hogan, chief executive at Clear Channel Radio, announced limits on the number of ads per minute based on format and time of day, across Clear Channel’s empire of 1,200 stations. A spokesperson for Clear Channel said the ceiling on ads will be effective in January.

Harvey Wells, a fixture in Chicago radio, left Infinity in February for WSBC’s 99.9 FM because he was lured away by the chance to create an “antidote to what’s been going on in radio industry over the past few years, the consolidation,” he said.

“We’re hitting a nerve in people. Radio is too boxed in. It’s so niched out. Radio is not giving people credit for taste,” said Wells, who claimed to be having “more fun than I’ve had in years .... We’re rebels with a cause.”

Even though the station is sticking to a music format, some see it as a move in the direction back to what Langston called “the days of magic radio” when listeners could call up a local talk show host and have the host make an on-the-air call to a local politician to solve the problem.

Those were also the days when Hill, then a newcomer to Chicago at radio station WBMX (now V103) broadcast rumors that a local congressman named Harold Washington was considering a run for mayor of Chicago. It was 1983 and Hill observed that Chicago had a large African-American population. He asked a simple question: “Why can’t we vote in a black man?”

The answer to that, as they say, made radio history.

Barbara K. Iverson, Ph.D., a journalism faculty member at Columbia College Chicago, specializes in media reform and online media. Contact her at biverson@colum.edu

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