Monday, June 07, 2004

Going Montana
I did something this past weekend I rarely do--listened to music on commercial radio, specifically a classic rock station in Antigo, Wisconsin. Antigo is a town of about 9,000, where we were visiting friends. Back in the day, it wouldn't have had a classic rock station. Its radio station would probably have played something a bit more tame--country, maybe--and would have been heavy on the local news and information. It would NOT have been cranking "Free Bird" at 11:00 on a Saturday morning. But now it's part of an eight-station group spread across a wide expanse of northeastern Wisconsin, the programming is delivered entirely by satellite, and most of the time, there's nobody in the Antigo building. The whole thing is run from Rhinelander, 45 miles away. If it's local you want, you have to tune to some other station in the group--and then hope it isn't the one in Eagle River, 60 miles away, or Minocqua, 70 miles away.

I have probably mentioned here that I used to be a broadcaster. My last radio gig was in the Quad Cities (Davenport, Iowa/Moline-Rock Island, Illinois). I worked there briefly for a pioneering operation. In 1995, it had more different stations under one roof than any other group in the whole country. I was recently poking around various radio station websites from down there, and was surprised at how many of my former colleagues are doing double duty--a midday shift on one station and an evening or overnight shift on another entirely different one within the group. It's the miracle of voice-tracking--you already know what the music sequence will be, and you can record your bits for a four- or six-hour show in maybe half-an-hour. When the station computer puts it altogether, voila! It sounds like live radio, but it isn't. And it can't be. A story is famously told of Minot, North Dakota, where all six local radio stations are owned by Clear Channel. In January 2002, a train derailment and a toxic chlorine gas spill threatened the city--but when local officials tried getting the local radio stations to alert the public, there wasn't a live body at any of them.

(And you don't get two salaries from holding down two shifts, either.)

It didn't have to be Clear Channel or Minot, though. The Clear Channel ethos--more stations in fewer hands and lots of canned programming--is alive and well everywhere in broadcasting. And it's no wonder--it's cheap and profitable. But it's pretty much erased any regional differences between radio stations, and it's taken the fun out of being a listener, too. When the Mrs. and I were first married and both in radio, it was fun to listen to other stations when we were on the road. Now, there's no point. It doesn't take much effort when you're out on the road to find the exact service you listen to at home. The bone-deep dullness of it has driven me away from commercial music radio entirely. And the commercials--when I left the Quad Cities, we were running three commercial breaks an hour, each six or seven minutes in length. If I hadn't been getting paid to do my show, I wouldn't have listened to it, for that reason alone. There are no commercials when I play a cassette or CD.

The McDonaldization of radio has opened a couple of market niches: first, for satellite radio. I have got to get me one of these things--for $10 a month, you can have stations that are all-jazz, all-reggae, or all whatever-the-hell, many commercial-free and some without jocks at all. The satellite services also offer more traditional sorts of stations, too, and big-name services like NPR and Air America. As this technology improves, it could lead to a pretty significant erosion in over-the-air broadcasters' market share. The broadcast industry knows it, and they're fighting back.

A second niche is for low-power stations. Currently, regulations keep stations in the same market from being too close together on the FM band to reduce interference. The proposed low-power stations would be squeezed into these separations, and could give some of the country's largest markets several more signals. The ostensible reason for this is because it would increase diversity on the dial--maybe somebody could put on an all-jazz or all-reggae station over the air. But remember, that was the ostensible reason for the FCC to permit the birth of enormous groups like Clear Channel in the late 1990s. If fewer owners have more stations in one market, the logic went, they can program a wider variety of formats because they don't have to do battle with so many different competitors to stay profitable. But has that happened in your town? It hasn't here. So I'm skeptical about whether the low-power stations will really increase diversity. The broadcasting industry is dead-set against this idea, too.

Recommended Reading: As the entire planet right down to the rocks and dirt mourns the death of Ronald Reagan this week, we pause to remember the man whose administration famously tried to reclassify ketchup as a vegetable to save money on the federal school lunch program. That makes it somehow fitting that the state of Montana lists "bald" as a hair-color option when you apply for a driver's license or fishing license.

Note: If you haven't visited Democratic Underground lately, you'll want to be sure to do so tomorrow. Go there now if you want to, as there's a new edition of the Top 10 Conservative Idiots to enjoy. But definitely go there tomorrow, too.

(This post has been edited since it first appeared to fix several editorial errors. I remember when I used to be good at this.)

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