Grassroots and conglomerates Cross talk

New media artist George Cisneros in the Vue Ture Art studio at Urban 15's complex on South Presa. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

New FCC rules take the airwaves from its owners — the public — and places it in the hands of a few broadcasters.

George Cisneros has devoted most of his adult life to making the media more accessible to the general public. A local visual artist and musician, Cisneros creates web-based interactive documentaries and played an role in the late '60s when the newly formed Corporation for Public Broadcasting awarded San Antonio a license for a PBS television station.

In the early '70s, he helped form a cable-access group, Austin Community TV (it still exists), which provided audio-visual training to the public, and produced black-and-white films using hand-held rover cameras.

He later gravitated to a Houston-based Pacifica radio station, worked with a San Antonio coalition that created television programming for the local cable system, and served on a city cable advisory committee while his brother, Henry, was mayor. As Cisneros puts it, "Throughout my professional career as an artist, I've also had a parallel track in the distribution of the signal."

So it's hardly surprising that when Cisneros looks at the confounding maze of media conglomerates dominating our airwaves - and the Federal Communications Commission's eagerness to accelerate deregulation - he sees trouble. On one hand, he's excited by what he calls a "very strong, active grassroots-level media community" in San Antonio, but on the other hand, he sees few media avenues for such creative communicators to get their work seen. "What I'm finding more and more bothersome is that there are less outlets for the increasing number of productions," Cisneros says.

Cisneros is only one voice in a progressively louder chorus of dissidents concerned about FCC-approved changes in media ownership rules. The FCC passed these controversial rules by a 3-2 vote last June, lifting a ban on cross-ownership of a daily newspaper and TV station in the same market, allowed one company to own more than one TV station in a particular market, and to reach up to 45 percent of American households (up from 35 percent) with its combined television-station holdings. (It is now 39 percent, pending a Senate vote.)

These rules remain in limbo in a Philadelphia circuit court; the Prometheus Radio Project, a non-profit group that supports the growth of low-power and micro-radio stations, sued the FCC last fall. Yet, the proposed rules - which, given the power of the industry, could still be enacted - threaten to further the explosive growth of media chains that began with the 1996 Telecommunications Act.

The '96 Act lifted decades-old caps on media acquisition, enabling San Antonio's Clear Channel Communications to expand from 40 to more than 1,200 radio stations over the last seven years. The company, the largest in a field of huge conglomerates, also owns 37 television stations, and controls billboard advertising, concert promotion, and music venues around the country. The fear among activists and the public is that the new rules will do to television what the '96 Act did to radio: Homogenize and de-localize it.

In the remarkably prescient first edition of his 1983 book, The Media Monopoly, (to be updated and reprinted in March) Ben Bagdikian observed: "In the past, each medium had to act like a watchdog over the behavior of its competing media ... But now the watchdogs have been cross-bred into an amiable hybrid."

If that were true two decades ago, it is beyond dispute now. Bagdikian made the important point that even if media conglomerates act efficiently and use their power responsibly, the results are still damaging, because "concentrated power over public information is inherently antidemocratic."

Any look at media deregulation has to acknowledge - as Bagdikian's work suggests - that the genie escaped the bottle way before the 1996 Telecommunications Act. Radio, once a source of music programming that reflected the culture of its region, long ago became the province of numbers-crunching consultants. Local television news gradually shifted away from local content and reporting enterprise and toward syndicated news beamed from a company's headquarters (which is happening with Sinclair Broadcasting and its many Fox affiliates) and superficial soundbites. And the number of daily newspapers dropped from more than one per urban area in 1900 to roughly one per six urban areas in 2000.

But pre-1996, no individual media company had sufficient power to run roughshod over an entire industry. In 2004, Clear Channel's stranglehold on the various means of delivering music to the public allows for that possibility - whether or not you believe the abuse-of-power allegations often levied at the corporate behemoth. And at a time when music sales are sluggish, it's easy to wonder whether the homogeneity of the airwaves bears as much - if not more - responsibility for the downturn as the much-ballyhooed effect of internet downloading.

Ratings studies have determined that time spent listening to the radio in the United States is at a 27-year low. The Future of Music Coalition, a non-profit think tank based in Washington, D.C., recently completed a national survey in which 80 percent of the respondents supported action to prevent further media consolidation, while 38 percent said local artists were underexposed on the radio.

For some San Antonio musicians, radio has become irrelevant.

"I really haven't listened to the radio since the '80s," says Mark Fleming, guitarist for the band The White Heat. "I got turned on at a young age to skateboard culture and punk music, and that music wasn't part of commercial radio. Nowadays, you might hear one good song out of 30 crappy ones, and I'd rather burn mix CDs at home.

Fleming adds: "We don't even think about `airplay on` commercial radio, and I don't think any local band does, if they're being truthful."

It's a view shared by Sauce Gonzalez, veteran keyboardist for the legendary Westside Horns. "It was easier in the old days with our local stations," Gonzalez says, recalling his days playing with Sunny Ozuna in the 1960s. "It's more controlled now by the big companies. If we get played, it's on the college stations. We don't really do tejano and there aren't any commercial stations that play the blues. We've been around for a few years, but I think it's really tough for the young guys.

"I don't really listen to the radio anymore," Gonzalez says. "It's so monopolized. You either have to work with them or you don't get played."

Cisneros sees not only the list of media owners, but also the range of content, narrowing. "We have really fragmented the old idea of music categories," he says. "We have segmented music by volume level and age. We have easy-listening, classic-rock, metal, and so many categories now that every radio station is created to be provider of a given genre. The original, local musician has a much more difficult struggle because we don't have a local broadcasting music deliverer."

"We don't even think about `airplay on` commercial radio, and I don't think any local band does, if they're being truthful."
— Mark Fleming,
The White Heat
Media giants like the Fox network - owned by Rupert Murdoch - and Clear Channel have also been accused of using their influence to insidiously spread a conservative, pro-Bush doctrine. The fact that Fox News chairman Roger Ailes has a well-documented history as a Republican strategist certainly flies in the face of his channel's avowed commitment to "fair and balanced" coverage. And when Clear Channel stations around the country organized pro-Iraq War rallies early last year, it looked like the company was merely spreading the conservative agenda of its chairman and CEO Lowry Mays. While Mays is friendly with Bush, Clear Channel is one of the GOP's largest campaign contributors - giving more than $300,000 to Republican candidates and politicians in the last two election cycles.

Mays has said that radio is healthier now than before deregulation, and emphasizes that more stations were in the red 10 years ago than now. This over looks the fact that concerns about the the viability of post-deregulation media have nothing to do with profit margins, and everything to do with the quality of what is being broadcast. Mays was quoted in Fortune magazine last March as saying, "We're not in the business of providing news and information. We're not in the business of providing well-researched music. We're simply in the business of selling our customers' products."

Speaking before a Senate committee last year, Mays testified that when he bought his first San Antonio radio station in 1972, he knew little about radio, but understood one key principle: "You must delight the listener every hour of the day."

Clear Channel's eagerness to "delight" can take crass turns, such as the online "Shag or Bag" campaign perpetuated by its local contemporary-hits station, KXXM, 96.1-FM. Visitors to the station's website are invited to look at pictures of other KXXM listeners, and vote on whether they would like to "shag or bag" them.

But if Clear Channel's radio stations frequently like to limbo with the lowest common denominator, research indicates their political muscle might be exaggerated. A recent study conducted by Princeton doctoral student Gabriel Rossman found that - contrary to rumor - Clear Channel stations did not lead last year's radio boycott of the Dixie Chicks after the group's singer Natalie Maines bashed President Bush at a London concert.

"I found that the big chains were actually the last people to stop playing them," Rossman says. "The independent stations dropped them first. I think `the big chains` are just too bureaucratic. They do all their programming through taking surveys and things like that. With small, independent stations, they get a few phone calls saying, 'We think you should boycott the Dixie Chicks,' they say, 'OK, drop 'em, they're off.' Whereas a Clear Channel station gets a few phone calls and they're going to be like, 'Well, we'll consider them at our next programming meeting.'"

Another Rossman study determined that fewer owners actually translates into a greater number of formats, because different owners tend to compete for the same audience, while a single company will distinguish its product by venturing into different formats.

"It's counter-intuitive, but when you think about it, if Clear Channel has two country stations, it's not going to broadcast the exact same thing on both of them," Rossman says. "It's going to make one 'Hot Country' and the other 'Classic Country.'"

Rossman's theory is controversial, and the Future of Music Coalition argues that it has found 561 examples of format redundancy by radio companies. But both sides agree that even if consolidation produces more formats, it also results in fewer songs, greater repetition of those songs, and a more national focus.

With the local component nearly nonexistent on commercial radio, local television becomes a more crucial source of information. Unfortunately, tracking of San Antonio's local news content demonstrates almost no actual coverage of the community, unless it concerns a fire, car accident, or crime. `See "Anatomy of a newscast."` There is little willingness to take on thorny issues or stir debate. Also, with the thinning of local media competition - negligible radio news divisions and only one daily newspaper - TV reporters show little inclination to break news.

For Cisneros, another concern arises from the issue of diversity. If the FCC's proposed rule changes take effect, eight companies could control all of the state's commercial television stations. He argues that broadcasters often address FCC diversity concerns by pointing to the breadth of their programming, while the real issue should be whether a diversity of voices is being represented.

"My concerns are based upon the process by which the FCC has decided to make these regulations, and the process by which we were given an opportunity to have input before the FCC," Cisneros says. "So it's more of a systemic problem with the FCC that I see, and this systemic problem happens to be favoring large corporations. But the FCC has had problems from the very beginning with defining its primary function."

Broadcasters should function to serve the public interest: According to the Communications Act of 1934, the public, not broadcasters, owns the airwaves.

"We have to make a decision," Cisneros says. "We have to decide if the media really should favor the listening and viewing public, or should it be designed to benefit the stockholders." •

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