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Friday, July 25, 2003

Media Musings-I'm not sure what to make of the current flap over media concentration. The House passed a bill rolling back FCC rules allowing media companies to have coverage of a larger percentage of the country; this WaPo piece has the ham and scalloped potatoes in the oven, ready for the wake of FCC chairman Michael Powell. I'm not sure what to think on this one. Liberals don't like media concentration because it helps big business and decreases media diversity. Conservatives don't like media concentration it for it gives more power to amoral media conglomerates. How much diversity is there on the commercial airwaves? Only the diversity that people want to listen to. Liberals would like to get more liberal talkers on the air, but radio stations would be happy to have them on if they brought listeners. If you head over to black radio, Tom Joyner roasts Bush on a regular basis to a national audience, doing from the left what Rush does from the right, but with a bit less joy. Jim Hightower was doing a good job when given a chance, and there likely are others that can entertain and inform an audience. However, I don't think local ownership is the problem. Even locally-owned stations will buy syndicated programming, limiting the number of local voices on the air. Generally, the national shows are more interesting than the local shows, unless you have a good local host and both the host and you have been in an area long enough to appreciate the nuances of your area. As the country becomes more mobile, national shows make more sense to a transient audience. I don't see where national ownership will make that much of a difference with TV stations; other than the local news broadcasts, you have little local content. Cable TV makes a lot of local broadcast TV content moot; community access channels wind up filling the niche that local TV filled before the growth of syndication. People might say they want local content, but if given the choice between watching a local talk show on school reform or a Seinfeld rerun, Jerry and his buddies win for most people. The syndication market will sell to both locally-owned and conglomerate stations. The conglomerates might not have quite a handle on what local viewers like, but the station managers should be able to tell HQ what does and doesn't work; ratings are universally understood. To roll back the FCC rules won't mean that local content will blossom. To insure that local content got produced, you'd have to have a nasty set of regulations requiring that stations document their local content. The conglomerates have some economies of scale; the company that runs the smooth jazz channels can run the same jingle with the same music and have the singer sing different call letters and station frequencies for each jingle (at least I heard that both here in metro Tampa and in Chicago). For radio people, that will mean fewer jobs. However, aren't we as free-marketeers supposed to support doing things more efficiently? The dynamist in me wants to back Powell; there's nothing wrong about a national conglomerate. Would we be better off if a Federal Food Commission limited McDonalds or Wal-Mart to 35% of the cities? I don't think so. If people like standardization, they'll listen to the national product. If local product works better, the conglomerates will start producing it. However, the CrunchyCon in me appreciates local control. There's a long-seated American distrust to centralized business power, preferring the mom-'n-pop to the national chain. When their is a limited number of spots on the radio dial, having local control of some of them is more comforting than having national chains run them from elsewhere. The dynamist and the CrunchyCon have fought to a draw on this one, for you're not going to see much difference in what gets on the air either way. That may be where low-power broadcasting could be helpful. Papa Blog's been beating the drums on this one and rightly so; more channels at the bottom of the FM dial could wind up adding to the diversity of the dial. There might not be a market for your type of music or your type of talk show on the conventional station. A legal pirate radio station might wind up being the broadcasting version of a blog, broadcasting a quirky mix of whatever the station-owner felt like putting on, whether it be reggae or Christian alternative or political commentary or whatever. I wouldn't be disappointed if the Senate passed the rollbacks on corporate concentration. However, I'm in the odd position of looking to support Power on this because the liberals are against him, even if they have valid points.

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