Sound and fury
Corporate consolidation has destroyed commercial radio. Here's how it happened
-- and how to make it better.
by Dan Kennedy
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
Anderson boasts that these are good times for WILD. Since adopting a format
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
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
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
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
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.
Dan Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.