Friday, June 18, 2004

"Community Radio At A Crossroads"

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...public radio consultant David Giovannoni, promising stations higher cumulative ratings and income per broadcast hour if they just "lose what's on the periphery" and "focus on a single audience."

Giovannoni celebrates homogeneity and predictability: "A radio station should be something for the same person all the time." Those target persons, he explains, are middle-aged and college-educated.

However, by catering to the affluent, who already are blessed with many choices, this course effectively expropriates a public resource for the benefit of a privileged few.

The context for this latest move should be familiar by now.

Placed in a survival mode by the Reagan Administration and, later, Gingrich-led Congress, NPR stations began to pursue corporate underwriting more aggressively. This led to a preoccupation with ratings, polls and focus groups, and more and longer commercials. A 1998 study found almost half of public radio listeners threatening to stop contributing if the trend toward "more prevalent" and "more annoying" underwriting messages continued.

There also has been a shift to more national programming featuring a more establishment point of view and NPR branded sound.

Charlotte Ryan's study of NPR public affairs programming found a heavy reliance on government press releases, presented without comment. NPR rejected Prairie Home Companion as "offensive to the middle class." Ira Glass had to launch This American Life outside the NPR system, which he characterized as "a risk-adverse culture."

Even NPR ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin has acknowledged: "I think we've become addicted to money. And that becomes a kind of self-censorship; we know�what's acceptable and what's not."

If anything, the importance of truly public radio has become greater in recent years with the deregulation and increasing consolidation of commercial radio.

Four major radio groups control 70 to 90 percent of local market share. Clear Channel alone has exploded from 14 stations in 1996 to more than 1,200 today. Contrary to official predictions, many group stations in the same market duplicate each other's formats.
Clear Channel has since parlayed its radio station dominance into becoming the nation's top concert promoter. Now, a great many artists, participating in the Future of Music Coalition, are charging systematic discrimination against unaffiliated musicians. Even FCC Chair Michael Powell, who has proclaimed the "free market" to be his "religion," has acknowledged being "troubled" by "media concentration, particularly in radio."

In dramatic contrast to its posture toward big media, the government has been zealous in its regulation of small media. To receive a CPB Community Service Grant stations must have at least five full-time paid staff, operate at 100 or more watts, and program at least 18 hours a day, seven days a week. This policy has effectively disenfranchised hundreds of small stations across the country.

More recently, stations also have been required to demonstrate a minimum level of Arbitron rated listenership or per capita financial support. Volunteer labor is not counted in the calculation of financial support. Jim Foley, KXCI Tucson music director, does not consider that an oversight. He calls it "a government bribe to reduce local community involvement in community radio."

When the ratings/dollars requirement was imposed, some 80 stations were put in immediate jeopardy.
While most of these survived, they did so only by dropping ethnic music and language programs and informational talk shows with smaller audiences; in short, according to Current writer Jacqueline Conciatore, the kind of shows "heard only on public radio." Thus, many "peripheral" communities-citizens and taxpayers all-- have been excluded from the public's airwaves.

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