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The Noise on I-40

by Alexander Cockburn

Gallup, N.M. – Drive across the United State, mostly on Interstate 40, and you have plenty of time to listen to the radio. Even more time than usual if, to take my own situation, you’re in a 1976 Ford 350 one-ton, ploughing along at 50mp. By day I listen to FM.

Bunked down at night, there’s some choice on the motels’ cable systems, all the way from C-SPAN to pay-as-you-snooze filth, though there’s much less of that than there used to be, or maybe you have to go to a Marriott or kindred high end place to get that. By contrast the choice on daytime radio, FM or AM, is indeed a vast wasteland. far more bleak than the high plains of Texas and New Mexico I’ve been looking at for the past couple of days. It’s awful. Even the religious stuff has gone to the dogs. I remember twenty years ago making the same drive through the bible belt and you’d hear crazed preachers raving in tongues. These days hell has gone to love. Christian radio is so warm and fuzzy you’d think you were listening to Terry Gross. By any measure, and you don’t need to drive along I-40 to find this out, radio in this country is in ghastly shape. Since the 1996 Telecommunications “Reform” Act, conceived in darkness and signed in stealth, the situation has got even worse. Twenty, thirty years ago broadcasters could own only a dozen stations nationwide and no more than two in any single market. The company Clear Channel alone owns more than 800 stations pumping out identical muck in all states. Since 1996 there’s been a colossal shake-out. Small broadcasters can no longer hack it. Two or three companies with eight stations each control each market. Bob McChesney cites an industry publication as saying that the amount of advertising is up to 18 minutes per hour, with these commercials separated by the same endless, golden oldies. On I-40 in Tennessee alone I listened to “Help!” at least sixteen times.

The new chairman of the FCC, Colin Powell’s son Michael, has just made life even easier for Clear Channel and the other big groups. On March 12 he okayed 32 mergers and kindred transactions in 26 markets. Three days later, at the instigation of the FCC, cops burst into Free Radio Cascadia in Eugene, Oregon, seized broadcasting equipment and shut FRC down.

Michael Powell is clearly aiming for higher things than the FCC, and he’s certainly increased his own family’s resources. His okaying of the AOL-Time merger stands to net his father Colin, a man freighted with AOL stock options derived from his recent service on that company’s board, many millions of dollars. Michael insists there was a Chinese wall across the family dining table and he and Dad never chatted about AOL. Why would they need to. If there’s a hippo on the hearth rug, you don’t need to put a sign on it.

Is there any chink of light amid the darkness of radio-land? Yes, there is. Several, in fact. For one thing, the tide may be turning in the Pacifica fight. In the recent meeting in Houston the national Pacifica board took a beating in its effort to fix the by-laws so as to make it easier to continue its mission of destruction. And recent court decisions in California have favored courtroom challenges against the national board’s onslaughts on local control of stations such as KPFA.

Above all the Pacifica Board in now reaping the consequences of its forcible late-night seizure of WBAI offices last December and the barely credible arrogance and stupidity of WBAI station manager Eutrice Lied on March 14 in pulling the plug on US Rep Major Owens in the midst of a live broadcast because he dared discuss Pacifica’s affairs.

A furious Owens has now raised a stink on the floor of the House about Pacifica’s high-handed conduct and has put forward a plan to settle the row. Somewhere down the road we can maybe see a scenario developing in which the Pacifica National Board gets pushed toward the exit. In the meantime, as Juan Gonzalez, who resigned from Democracy Now recently, recommends: Don’t finance the enemy. Put your contributions to Pacifica stations in escrow.

And low-power radio? The commercial broadcasters fought savagely all last year to beat back the FCC’s admittedly flawed plan to license over 1000 low power stations. In the end the radio lobby attached a rider to an appropriations bill signed by Clinton late last year, with regs ensuring low power would never gain a foothold in cities, also ensuring that the pirate broadcasters of yesteryear who created the momentum for low power, could never get licences. But make no mistake who the real villain was. Listen to Peter Franck of the National Lawyers’ Guild in San Francisco who has been a leading force in the push for low power fm. “From talking to people in DC it is absolutely clear that if NPR had not vigorously joined the NAB in its attempt to kill microradio the legislation would have gone through.”

But all would-be low power broadcasters should know that right now there’s opportunity. The FCC has been considering applications for licenses (in some regions the window has already closed) and mostly it’s been conservatives (churches included) jumping in. In many states you can still make applications to the FCC. Jump in! Contact the Lawyers’ Guild’s Center of Democratic Communications at 415-522-9814 or, though first take a look at their webpage to save time.

These fights are all essentially the same, against the same enemy, whether in the form of the Pacifica Board or the directors of NPR or the NAB or the government: the fight for democracy in communications. Here Franck and others are already contemplating a deeper assault on the 1996 Act and the 1934 communications Act, on constitutional grounds. The purpose of the First Amendment is democracy. Democracy requires broad range of opinion. After 75 years of a commercially-based media system we have a narrow range of debate, and this abuse of the airwaves is therefore unconstitutional. That’s a big fight, but here it comes.

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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