How we got here: A look back at how commercial radio in Boston was destroyed

Photo (cc) 2010 by Dan Kennedy

With the bankrupt corporate chain iHeartMedia now in the process of dismantling WBZ Radio (AM 1030), the city’s only commercial news station, I thought I would repost a story I wrote for The Boston Phoenix in 1997 — a look at the state of radio in Boston one year after passage of the disastrous Telecommunications Act of 1997.

Sound and Fury

Corporate consolidation has destroyed commercial radio. Here’s how it happened — and how to make it better.

The Boston Phoenix
November 13, 1997

It’s cold in Rick Anderson’s office, on the third floor of a red-brick building just outside Roxbury’s Dudley Square. Not see-your-breath, rub-your-hands cold, but cold enough for Anderson to have topped off his casual attire with a heavy flannel shirt. Cold enough for a visitor to keep his sports coat on.

Anderson, 41, is the program director of WILD Radio (AM 1090), where he has worked off and on since 1984. A trim man of medium height, with a shaved head, close-cropped mustache, and goatee, Anderson speaks in the smooth, confident tones of an experienced radio announcer. In fact, in addition to his management duties, Anderson works the afternoon drive time shift, playing new hits by black artists such as SFTP (“My Love Is the Shhh”) and Bobby Brown (“Feelin Inside”).

Anderson boasts that these are good times for WILD. Since adopting a format of what he calls “straight urban music” last year, the station’s ratings have ticked up. And though the station is hardly a threat to ratings monster WJMN (94.5 FM), a/k/a JAM’N, whose music formula occupies the same niche, Anderson insists that WILD has more credibility in the black community.

“It’s all good music,” he says. “It’s just that at one end it’s done by black people, at the other end it’s done by white people. We really know the music. They do a lot of — research.” Obviously pleased with the comparison, he leans back in his chair and smiles.

But there’s another, even more crucial difference between WILD and WJMN. At a time when radio has come to be dominated by megacorporations that gobble up multiple stations in a given market, WILD is one of the last of the independents.

On February 8, 1996, a furious, multimillion-dollar lobbying effort by corporate interests paid off big time, when Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996 into law. Though most of the focus was on the deregulation of the telephone, cable, and television industries, the law also contained a sweet plum for the radio industry — or, rather, for the industry’s wealthiest players. Ownership restrictions in a given market were loosened from four stations to as many as eight. National restrictions, formerly set at 40 stations, were eliminated altogether.

Not surprisingly, this green light set off a feeding frenzy. More than 4000 of the nation’s 10,000 or so commercial radio stations have changed hands since the bill’s passage. The combined price tag: a whopping $25 billion, or slightly more than this year’s federal budget deficit.

The consolidation of Boston’s stations came mainly in two big gulps. The first took place in June 1996, when Westinghouse Electric Company, owner of CBS Radio, purchased Infinity Broadcasting for $3.9 billion, creating a nationwide chain of 82 stations. The second came this past September, when Westinghouse bought out American Radio Systems for $2.6 billion. After the merger is complete, Westinghouse will be the nation’s radio powerhouse. Chancellor Media will have more stations, but Westinghouse/CBS will have more listeners at any given moment. (See “Monopoly Pieces” for an explanation of how listenership is measured.)

As a result, Westinghouse/Infinity and ARS control 10 Boston stations, accounting for some 70 percent of the radio advertising market. Under US Department of Justice antitrust guidelines, Westinghouse will have to sell or trade stations to get that figure down to 40 percent before the sale wins final approval, probably in early 1998. That will still make Westinghouse the big bully on the block. And that bully has the potential to flex its muscle more in the years to come because once it scales back to 40 percent, there is no cap on future ad-sales growth.

According to the most recent Arbitron ratings, Westinghouse, American Radio Systems, and two other megaconglomerates, Chancellor Media Corporation and Greater Media, Inc., own 16 of the top 20 Greater Boston stations, including the entire top seven. The sole independents: WCRB (102.5 FM), which plays classical music; WFNX (101.7 FM), an alternative-rock station that’s a sister company of the Boston Phoenix; and WILD.

Which is why it’s mighty chilly in Rick Anderson’s office. Unlike their well-heeled competitors, Anderson and company have to watch every penny. After all, it’s tough for an independent to sell advertising. Big groups can offer package deals for all of their stations, sold by account execs with spiffy charts and even spiffier suits.

But the advertising struggle is hardly the only reason that independents find it increasingly difficult to survive. And it’s certainly not the reason listeners should care.

Rather, the corporatization of radio matters because it’s destroying a uniquely intimate medium, replacing real community voices, people with a sense of place and purpose, with the same soundalike shows in city after city, town after town. Sometimes the sameness is literal: look at the rise of syndicated hosts such as Howard Stern, Don Imus, and Rush Limbaugh, making the airwaves of Dubuque, Iowa, indistinguishable from those of New York, Los Angeles, or Boston. More often, the sameness is one of similarity, with bland, accent-free disc jockeys (or hyperenergetic shock jocks selling the same brand of pseudowacky “originality” in market after market) working from the same computer printouts and spinning the same genre-driven tunes. It’s highly profitable. And it sucks.

Call it the malling of the airwaves.

WILD, by contrast, is a throwback to the days when a radio station made money by serving an individual, identifiable community. You couldn’t transplant WILD’s programming to, say, Winchester. More to the point, you couldn’t transplant it to black neighborhoods in other parts of the country. WILD’s audience is Greater Boston’s African-American community. Period.

Take Sundays. The morning begins with four hours of gospel music — spun, until his death two weeks ago, by David Adams, who’d been at it since 1969. “We have to take care of the church community. They are very strong supporters,” Rick Anderson explains, adding: “I grew up listening to David Adams.” That’s followed by a program sponsored by the local Nation of Islam; In Unison, a local talk show; The Caribbean Cruise, for the Caribbean community; and various in-house and syndicated features on personal finance, health, and other topics. During the week, WILD broadcasts public-service announcements for the likes of the Roxbury Community Center and Boston Healthy Start. And then there are special promotional events such as the recent “WILD’s Zoo Howl,” a family Halloween celebration at the Franklin Park Zoo.

Sadly, such a local orientation is often the first thing to go when a station is acquired by a megacorporation with eyes only for the bottom line. Of course, it’s unfair to condemn all chain-owned radio stations. WBZ (AM 1030), which Westinghouse has owned for several decades, has long been a model community citizen. But corporate managers must answer to the shareholders. And to a bean counter in a distant home office, local programming is just an unnecessary expense.

“Radio as an intensely local, highly individualized service will diminish,” says Andy Schwartzman, executive director of the Washington-based Media Access Center. “It’s a damn shame.”

***

Morning is when radio’s pulse beats the loudest. Whether it’s on a student’s radio-alarm clock or in a commuter’s car, radio is how most of us orient ourselves to the new day.

In Boston, as elsewhere, that experience has deteriorated considerably over the past few years. Where once there were a number of vibrant local options, today the choices amount to little more than titillation and syndication.

On American Radio Systems’ WRKO (AM 680), the pointed but polite political talk of Janet Jeghelian and Ted O’Brien has been replaced by Clapprood & Company, with host Marjorie Clapprood cracking jokes about diarrhea and menstruation, with her current sidekick, WFNX morning guy Tai.

On Westinghouse’s WBCN (104.1 FM), the legendary Charles Laquidara, a ’60s veteran who years ago was nearly fired for berating an advertiser’s role in the manufacture of Agent Orange, has given way to syndicated host Howard Stern, whose idea of controversy is to slobber over women’s breasts. (Laquidara has found a new home at Westinghouse’s WZLX, 100.7 FM — at least as long as his ratings hold or he isn’t let go because of his age or high salary.)

WEEI (AM 850), once a CBS-owned all-news station, is now an all-sports station owned by American Radio Systems. The morning guy is Don Imus, who’s funny, talented — and from New York. The news fix is now provided by WBZ, though not in the depth or with the breadth that ‘EEI used to offer.

As for the rest of the dial, there’s not a niche left unserved — provided your taste in music fits into one of the predetermined, advertiser-friendly, artificial genres into which music has been sliced and diced, such as “contemporary hit radio/rhythm,” “contemporary hit radio/pop,” “alternative,” “adult alternative,” “hot adult alternative,” “urban adult contemporary,” “rock,” and “classic rock.”

For the megacorporations that dominate radio, these are the best of times. “A Wave of Buyouts Has Radio Industry Beaming with Success” the headline  in a recent Wall Street Journal story announcing that radio stocks are up about 80 percent for the year, well ahead of the stock-market average. Best of all, radio’s share of the advertising market has increased from 7 percent to 10 percent over the past several years.

For radio listeners, though, these are in many ways the worst of times.

Radio executives claim they’re giving the public what it wants. But it ain’t necessarily so. Julian Breen, a radio consultant based in Pennington, New Jersey, conducted a study that showed the amount of time people spend listening to the radio has declined by 5.5 percent since 1990. “Radio stations have gotten so good at niche marketing, at identifying niches that are appealing to advertisers, that a lot of people are left out of the niche,” he explains.

In turning away from commercial radio, people are tuning in public stations; in Boston, the leader is WBUR (90.9 FM), a 24-hour news and talk oriented station with some popular special programming that is operated by Boston University and doesn’t show up in the standard Arbitron ratings, but places in the top 10 in other surveys. Or WGBH (89.7 FM), a public station that broadcasts news, classical music, and jazz. Or the innovative music programming that’s played on college stations.

And no doubt some have simply given up. Snickers Republican political consultant Charles Manning: “All you have to do is listen to the radio stations in Boston, and you know why everybody’s got CD players in their cars.”

Indeed, with its restrictive formatting and increasing reliance on syndicated material, corporate radio is devouring itself, failing to develop new talent, play new music, or foster new ideas. Since chains can now load up their stations with cheap, nationally syndicated shows that they already own (Stern and Imus, for instance, were both part of Infinity founder Mel Karmazin’s Westwood One syndication service, which he brought with him to Westinghouse), young performers now have fewer and fewer opportunities.

“There is a huge financial incentive to replace local staff with national stuff. If you own it, it’s like you get paid twice,” says Jim Naureckas, editor of Extra!, a progressive media-watch magazine published by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting.

Whether you like Stern or not, what you hear on the radio every morning is the result of years he spent honing his act. Today, though, there are no fledgling Sterns at stations in the hinterlands, slowly improving and hoping for a shot at the big time. After all, those stations are already carrying Stern.

“If Howard Stern were to be ambushed by Martians tomorrow, who would do his show?” asks Boston-based radio consultant Donna Halper, an instructor at Emerson College.

***

My first insight into radio’s possibilities came in 1969 or ’70. It took the form of a long, loud fart, followed by a high-pitched, British-accented voice demanding: “Are you embarrassed easily?”

This scatological revelation — courtesy of a Monty Python sketch, broadcast on WBCN, then a fledgling flagship of the counterculture — may not seem like much. But to a teenager brought up in the carefully controlled universe of Top 40 radio, it signaled that there was a whole world out there I didn’t know about, a world of creativity and anarchy. Of freedom.

In a sense, the moment was made possible by the federal government. Much as corporate radio’s defenders may characterize the current state of affairs as the triumph of the free market, the history of radio is actually the story of how big business and government have worked together. But more often than not, that partnership has worked to the detriment of listeners.

For instance, in the 1920s the dial was filled with stations operated by amateurs and nonprofit groups, including churches and unions. But as the commercial potential of radio became clear, the fledgling networks, NBC and CBS, began agitating for government protection. It came in the form of the Communications Act of 1934, which threw noncommercial stations off the AM band in return for a vague requirement that commercial stations would have to meet certain public-interest obligations as a condition of holding their licenses.

University of Wisconsin professor Robert McChesney, author of Telecommunications, Mass Media, and Democracy: The Battle for Control of US Broadcasting, 1928-1935 (Oxford University Press, 1995), sees striking parallels between the 1934 law and the drafting of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. “Neither of them had any public debate,” he says. “Both of them were rammed through by powerful lobbies.”

The FM band languished into the early 1960s. Few people had FM radios, especially in their cars. Nonprofits and college stations congregated on the band, joined by AM stations that would grab an FM signal and simulcast their regular programming. But in the mid ’60s, FM got a big boost. Once again, government was the driving force: the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), to foster innovation and diversity, ordered that simulcasting be phased out.

It was in this new environment that WBCN was born. From the moment in 1968 when it switched from classical music to rock, WBCN was a national leader of the counterculture, playing a mind-bending variety of music (in the early days, you could not only hear Jimi Hendrix, but also Miles Davis and even, on occasion, Tchaikovsky) and politically progressive news and public-affairs programs. The station fostered a broad sense of community and solidarity, from Lock-Up, which focused on prisoner’s rights (and musical requests), to nightly updates on lost dogs and cats on the streets of Cambridge, Somerville, and other youth enclaves.

Today, WBCN offers a mix of Howard Stern, the New England Patriots, and rock and roll aimed at 18- to 24-year-old males. Call the station, and the receptionist chirps, “CBS.” Just last week the station unceremoniously gave the boot to Mark Parenteau, a disc jockey at ‘BCN for 20 years, because management decided the six-figure-salaried DJ no longer appeals to younger listeners. The Parenteau story illustrates a larger trend in the making: older, highly paid talent can and will be replaced by younger and less expensive on-air personalities, or syndicated shows.

The corporate pressures that eventually turned ‘BCN into just another station actually began long before the ’90s. As Danny Schechter, WBCN’s “news dissector” in the 1960s and ’70s, tells the Phoenix, WBCN was unusual even for its time; the pressure to go more mainstream began as far back as the mid-’70s, when the station began to feel the heat from competitors with no obvious political orientation.

“The traditional forces in radio began to push more music, less talk. And that was basically to sanitize the market of people with something to say. As the counter went out of the culture, market logic began to predominate,” says Schechter, who writes about his WBCN days in his new book, The More You Watch, the Less You Know (Seven Stories Press).

This renewed corporate mentality was helped along with yet another assist from the government. In the early 1980s, Ronald Reagan’s FCC attempted to work its free-market religion on radio, granting hundreds of new FM licenses and virtually removing public-interest requirements. In this new cutthroat environment, stations jettisoned much of their news and public-affairs programming. With too many stations chasing too few advertising dollars, profits plummeted and, in many cases, turned into losses.

The FCC responded in the early ’90s by relaxing ownership restrictions, both in local markets and nationally — culminating in the Republican Congress and Democratic president’s eager capitulation to monopoly forces in 1996.

The current state of music radio is a good illustration of what happens when just a few companies control most of the stations. Some radio executives actually argue that fewer owners leads to more musical diversity, since any given owner will seek out a different audience with each of its stations.

The problem comes when the theory is turned into reality. The result: narrowly focused stations whose mission is not to explore a particular genre of music, but rather to appeal to advertisers who might want to sell beer to 25-to-54-year-old men and don’t want to have to pay extra to reach 18-to-24-year-old women. Music by consultant and focus group, in other words.

“It’s not eclectic. It’s so out of whack with the reality of our culture,” says Michael Harrison, editor and publisher of Talkers magazine and a pioneering force in the early days of freeform and progressive radio. “It’s the corporatization of the culture — a corporate culture controlling, basically, art. Office workers and corporate managers can’t really have a feel for this kind of stuff.”

Phoenix-affiliated WFNX, like the shrinking number of independents, is committed to eclectic programming, such as jazz broadcasts, gay and lesbian programming (One in Ten), and special events like the broadcast this year of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl.

So insular and centralized has the industry become that insiders are afraid to talk about it. Mark Parenteau, unemployed after two decades at WBCN, won’t, even though his departure from the airwaves was hastened last week after he made a sarcastic remark about Mel Karmazin at an awards ceremony. (So sensitive is Karmazin to criticism that Howard Stern has a clause in his contract prohibiting him even from speaking the name.) “It would perhaps be unwise of me to make any statements,” said Parenteau when contacted by the Phoenix. Ditto for Ken Shelton, currently looking for an on-air gig after stints at WBCN, WZLX, and WBOS, who declined to be interviewed for this article.

Says Harrison: “This is too sensitive. This is volatile stuff. I can’t lose my job. That’s why I’m outspoken.”

Corporate power is also having a distorting effect on the record industry, which finds itself increasingly beholden to a handful of executives. Piss off a program director in San Francisco, and now you’ve got a problem in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Boston, too.

“A company can literally punish an artist or punish a manager or punish a record company up and down the corporation, on a national basis,” says a knowledgeable industry source. “That’s pretty profound.”

The new radio conglomerates also strong-arm labels into keeping their bands from making promotional appearances on smaller rival stations and independents. Several months ago, WAAF, then part of a smaller radio group, charged WBCN with just such tactics.

***

Corporate radio’s ugly triumph proves that Ronald Reagan was right: government is the problem. Despite 50 years of established policy that the airwaves belong to the public, and despite the simple physical reality that there are only a limited number of slots on the AM and FM dials, the federal government — social engineers pursuing their own agenda, to expropriate the language of conservatives — handed radio over to huge, powerful corporations, to the detriment of everyone except those corporations and their shareholders.

And what government did, it can undo — at least in part.

Ideally, it would break up the monopolies that it created. Realistically, that is unlikely to happen, because consolidation itself has driven the price of radio stations into once-unheard-of ranges. Consider the case of WNRB (AM 1510) — sold to a Christian group for $1.5 million in 1995, just before the telecom act was passed, and resold a couple of months ago to a sports programmer for $8 million. That’s a $6.5 million monopoly premium. Even if Congress were inclined to restore ownership limits, it certainly would not want to take responsibility for the massive losses that chain owners would incur.

Nor can government create great radio. But there’s plenty government can do to foster an environment in which great radio can flourish — and to make sure it doesn’t repeat the mistakes of the past few years when new technologies come online. Some suggestions:

• Reregulate. Congress should restore requirements that radio stations serve the public interest by broadcasting a specified quantity of news and public-affairs programs. At a minimum, the arrogance recently demonstrated by several Boston stations in refusing to run ads from city council candidates should be prohibited.

• Go public. James Love, director of the Ralph Nader-affiliated Consumer Project on Technology, proposes a tax on commercial radio stations that would be used to fund public stations, awarded on the basis of demonstrated community support. Such a tax should be levied only on the big chains, so as not to stress hard-pressed indies. That would solidify public radio’s base, and eliminate the annual drama over whether the Republican Congress will fulfill its oft-stated threat to kill it off once and for all.

• Duty now for the future. In the next few years, one or more new, competing radio bands, based on digital technology, will begin to come online. Congress can regulate those the way it should have regulated the AM and FM bands. To wit: strict ownership limits; generous portions of the spectrum reserved for nonprofit use; and a requirement that commercial broadcasters serve the public interest.

“We can condition the licensing for these new stations in such a way that guarantees new participants, including women and minorities,” says US Representative Ed Markey (D-Malden), ranking minority member of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and Finance. “That will be a huge moment in the history of radio.”

Of course, two years ago Markey fought — and lost — a battle to keep ownership restrictions in the Telecommunications Act of 1996. And he warns that the forces of unfettered corporatism will prevail again unless a Democratic majority returns to Congress.

Markey wanted to introduce a number of changes into the legislation, but the GOP leadership limited him to three. He chose to focus on television and cable. As a result, radio suffered.

“In the Gingrich era, it’s politically undoable,” Markey says of his vision for a regulated digital radio spectrum. “Remember, they wanted to kill National Public Radio just over a year ago.”

• Hoist the skull-and-crossbones. Low-power, neighborhood radio operations are called “pirate” stations in the US not because their proprietors hobble about on peg legs, but because the FCC has forced them underground: since the late ’70s, the agency has refused to grant licenses to stations of less than 100 watts. Yet in Canada, Italy, and Japan, to name just three countries, microbroadcasters fill the need to provide intensely local information that the big guns simply can’t be bothered with.

Despite their illegal status, there are an estimated several hundred neighborhood stations in the US, though from time to time the FCC cracks down. Two recent examples: Radio Free Allston and Worcester’s WDOA (see “Don’t Quote Me,” News, November 7). Now Cambridge artist/activist Ian MacKinnon is talking about starting a Radio Free Cambridge.

Congress should compel the FCC to change its regulations so that neighborhood stations can win a legal place on the dial.

• Get ready for the Net. The real future of radio may well be on the Internet, which can theoretically accommodate an infinite number of stations. Todd Wagner, CEO of Dallas-based AudioNet, which carries some 175 stations on its Web site (http://www. audionet.com), predicts that Internet radio will become as portable as other forms of radio within five years. Once that happens, you’ll be able to listen to a station based anywhere in the world, or to the amateur station your neighbor’s kid set up in his cellar.

The rationale for government regulation will disappear, since the Net, unlike the broadcast spectrum, is not a scarce public resource. Indeed, government’s main role will be to refrain from idiotic moves such as the late, unlamented Communications Decency Act. The Internet presents an unprecedented opportunity for do-it-yourself media devoted to innovative programming. And in an endless sea of data, the netcasters that focus on serving local audiences will probably be the ones who are the most successful.

There is, however, a potential hitch: money. Unless current licensing practices governing the broadcast of music change, grassroots Net stations could have problems. Some may not be able to afford the licensing fees today’s stations pay for music.

At WILD, Rick Anderson and his staff are just trying to survive. On a recent morning, Anderson meets with the promotions staff, goes over playlists with his music director, Steve Gousby, and juggles phone calls. It’s a constant whirl, and he’s got to wrap up soon: in two hours, he’ll be on the air.

Ironically, the merger of Westinghouse and American Radio Systems could help WILD overcome what’s long been its biggest obstacle: its sunrise-to-sunset signal, which sends thousands of listeners over to JAM’N every evening. Westinghouse-ARS may have to shed as many as three Boston stations to pass Justice Department muster, and there’s talk that WILD could move to a 24-hour slot, AM 1150. That space is currently occupied by ARS’s WNFT, which now simulcasts rocker WAAF (107.3 FM). There’s also a separate rumor that WILD might switch frequencies with UMass/Boston’s station, WUMB, 91.9 FM. Anderson says only that WILD and WUMB will make an announcement on November 25.

“Being an independent, we have to fight twice as hard,” Anderson says.

But that’s an outdated philosophy. The modern radio credo was perhaps best stated by Mel Karmazin, the fiftysomething mogul who’s now running all of CBS’s radio and television stations, and of whom it was once said, “Mel could sell shit in a bag if he had to.”

In a rare interview with Fortune magazine earlier this year, Karmazin described his first big thrill in the radio business.

“I was driven by opening up the paper and seeing my stock price rise every day,” he said. “I truly get off on that.”

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