Localism and diversity should be FCC's priorityBy Scott McCaughey
- The Seattle Times
As a longtime member of the Seattle music community, I know firsthand how important radio is for musicians. My bands, Young Fresh Fellows and the Minus 5, both preceded and participated in the alternative music explosion of the 1990s, and got a major boost from college stations.
Other prominent Seattle acts, such as Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Soundgarden and Presidents of the United States of America, benefited tremendously from both local and national airplay.
Of course, this was before the Federal Communications Act of 1996 ushered in an era of unprecedented consolidation. Since then, we've been left with ever-shrinking playlists and a lack of ownership diversity.
Seattle is still a major force in American music. Some of today's biggest groups, including Death Cab For Cutie and Modest Mouse, call the Emerald City home. Local label Sub Pop Records is internationally celebrated, and the underground scene is a never-ending source of worthy bands.
But, even the most successful of these acts have had less opportunity for airplay on mainstream radio than did their alt-rock antecedents. This is a direct result of media consolidation. Today's radio conglomerates aim to aggregate the largest possible number of listeners in a targeted demographic so they can sell ads. Their numbers-driven approach to programming has led to the homogenization of the nation's airwaves, and has a negative effect on culture. Localism and a spirit of adventure are all but missing from the dial.
That is, except for non-commercial broadcasters, such as KEXP and others. Their continued commitment to programming diverse music, as well as news and community-oriented fare, is a ray of light in an otherwise bland and uninspiring spectrum. These stations should not only be celebrated, but also nurtured. There is tremendous opportunity for media to reflect the interests of the public, if only Congress and the FCC make localism and diversity their priority.
Public sentiment couldn't be clearer. In 2003, former FCC Chairman Michael Powell attempted to ram through changes to media-ownership rules, which resulted in reprimands from Congress and the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals. Regular citizens voiced near-unanimous opposition to further consolidation in the form of millions of comments filed at the FCC.
Musicians haven't stayed silent, either. At both formal and informal hearings, artists such as Chuck D., Tom Morello, Ted Leo, Tift Merritt, Jenny Toomey, the Indigo Girls and Mike Mills of R.E.M. have offered their views on media ownership, the importance of community and low-power radio, net neutrality and payola.
Just a couple of weeks ago, Mac McCaughan, co-owner of North Carolina-based independent label Merge, testified before the Senate Commerce Committee at a hearing titled "The Future of Radio." In his testimony, McCaughan — whose imprint is home to acts like Spoon and Arcade Fire — spoke of the importance of community and noncommercial radio. "For a label like ours," he said, "and many other musicians out there, the support of noncommercial radio, which is programmed by people as passionate about music as we are, is essential."
Although the effects of radio consolidation are grim, the Internet has allowed for new methods of exposure for musicians and labels. Technological innovation continues to uncover new and exciting ways through which artists can connect with listeners. That's why net neutrality is so important.
Unfortunately, Big Telecom wants to change existing structures in order to charge a fee to content providers for the faster loading of their sites. This could drive those who couldn't afford to pay a "toll" right off the road. The consolidation of radio perfectly illustrates the effects of Big Media-imposed bottlenecks — let's not make the same mistake with the Web.
Instead of rushing to loosen or eliminate current media-ownership rules, the FCC should instead expand and strengthen opportunities for community and noncommercial broadcasters. Policymakers need to recognize not only the failures resulting from previous consolidation, but also the public's overwhelming rejection of further moves in that direction.
It's nice that Martin is bothering to hold hearings — his predecessor didn't care to. But, these events need to be more than just puppet shows to appease dissenters. Congress needs to make it clear that changes to media ownership rules will not be tolerated until the issues of localism and diversity are reconciled to the benefit of the public, whom the FCC is mandated to serve.Seattle-based Scott McCaughey has performed for more than 25 years as a singer/songwriter and instrumentalist in bands including the Young Fresh Fellows, the Minus 5, Tuatara and R.E.M.
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company