REV 105, the Reader and life on main street

Picture an average small town. It’s not too wealthy, perhaps a bit rough around the edges, but at the center lies a town square. There you find a dozen, maybe 20 stores: a pair of corner groceries, a shoe store, a hardware, a clothing shop. One day a Wal-Mart opens up on the outskirts of town. Inevitably the small, privately owned businesses are forced to close their doors.
Yes, that story is a clichÇ. The fact that it’s a clichÇ is sadly telling, but let’s pick it apart from a business perspective. More jobs were created than lost, the argument goes. The Wal-Mart provided the town’s residents with more, better and cheaper services. Most importantly, some small businesses thrived because they sold goods and services not provided by Wal-Mart. One grocery hung on because it sold fresh produce. Without its competition it grew and improved. The shoe store survived because it sold name brands the Wal-Mart didn’t. The other stores’ services were inadequate or overpriced. Their demise was too bad, but it helped the consumer. In the end, the town has a stronger economy.
But let’s also take a look at what was lost. On the town square, the shopkeepers most often knew their customers by name. A small nicety, perhaps, but one which can’t be replicated by even the most congenial Wal-Mart “greeter.” Also gone is the fact that at the end of the day, the owner of the hardware store turned around and bought groceries next door. The money stayed in the community. Missing too is a kind of market diversity. Sure, the megastore provides more, but it doesn’t present much choice. Mainstreaming means volume buying and discounts, but good luck requesting an obscure product. Most significant, and least quantifiable, is the psychological toll paid by the community that watches its main street die. As each storefront is boarded up, a part of what makes that town unique is lost.
This week the Twin Cities lost two of its cherished small businesses. REV 105, Revolution Radio, was a locally owned station. But its eclectic playlist and hip format vanished instantly when the station was bought Tuesday by multimedia conglomerate ABC, Inc., owners of KQRS and competing alternative station the Edge. You can hear a lot of the same songs on the Edge, they say. And you can no doubt buy the albums at Wal-Mart. Like the small-town patrons who knew their storekeepers, REV listeners lost more than a radio format — they lost a part of their community in which they had invested a portion of their identity.
The Twin Cities Reader closed its doors Wednesday, a day after being bought out by Stern Publishing. Stern, which bought City Pages last month, bought and closed the Reader to eliminate competition. In doing so it ended a healthy rivalry which kept the Cities’ alternative press sharp for almost two decades.
When a competition squeezes out small, ineffective business, it’s a sign of a healthy economy. But when small, effective ventures are forced out of business, something is deeply wrong. That the victims are small media outlets providing alternative culture and perspective is doubly disturbing. We are told that our economy is in great shape. As the Dow surges ever higher and the bull market of the century charges onward, one would think the American entrepreneurial spirit was never better. But you know what? A couple more stores just closed on main street.