Media mergers, diversity not mutually exclusive

Tonight’s forum is an opportunity for the public to make the FCC aware of its concerns.

Tonight at Hamline University, two Federal Communications Commission members will convene a “town hall meeting” to solicit public input on ownership consolidation in the broadcast industry.

Both Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein have deep reservations about concentration of ownership and its effect on local programming, particularly in radio. They will no doubt find allies among many activists who share their feelings, and we can expect a lively forum.

No one can deny that the Telecommunications Act passed by Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996 vastly changed the radio industry by allowing a single entity to own a virtually unlimited number of radio stations nationwide and multiple stations in a single market. But the larger question of whether such ownership concentration has stifled diversity of programming is worthy of further examination.

A scan of the Twin Cities radio dial 30 years ago – when a radio owner was restricted to controlling one AM and one FM station in each market – reveals considerable duplication of programming and music. In the early to mid-1970s, there were anywhere from three to four stations with Top 40 formats. These stations played basically the same music, and the most popular songs were repeated frequently.

The Twin Cities radio market in that era also was home to two stations with a “beautiful music” format that consisted of instrumental versions of pop songs. Even among public radio stations there was little format diversity. Here at the University of Minnesota, KUOM-AM was a typical public/educational radio station at the time, airing a mix of news and public affairs, instructional programming and classical music. The other non-commercial stations were similarly programmed.

Today, Twin Cities radio is far more diverse. The former Top 40 stations each air a different format: sports, talk, Hispanic and contemporary hit music. The “beautiful music” stations now play jazz and country. KUOM is now Radio K, run by a student staff and home to an eclectic format of independent rock, hip-hop, techno, metal, punk and international music. Radio K emphasizes local music and is renowned as the best source of information about the local music scene. KQRS-FM also departs weekly from its classic rock format to present a “homegrown” program focusing on local music.

Stations that have signed on in the past 30 years bring even greater variety to the airwaves. KFAI-FM, a community station, serves its listeners with many genres of music as well as public affairs and multi-cultural programming. KTTB-FM brought the region its first “urban” format with a mix of rap, hip-hop and contemporary music. WFMP-FM offers a talk format geared to women’s interests, and the purchase of a commercial station by Minnesota Public Radio in the early ’90s brought an exclusive classical music format to the market.

Why has ownership concentration in this market not sparked the duplicity of formats that many critics feared? One reason may be that it is simply not in the best business interests of a company to have its stations compete with one another for the same audience. That is why there are no longer several stations playing Top 40 music here. Another possibility is that consolidated ownership creates multiple revenue streams, giving companies greater opportunity to experiment with niche formats that would not be profitable for a single-station owner.

The airwaves are owned by the public, and broadcasters are merely given a lease to use them as long as they serve the community. Tonight’s forum in St. Paul is an opportunity for the public to make the FCC commissioners aware of their concerns about the broadcast media.

Such a dialogue is good for the community and good for the broadcasters. It may strike some critics of consolidation as ironic, but fewer owners does not necessarily mean fewer programming choices for consumers.

Jim du Bois is the president and chief executive officer of the Minnesota Broadcasters Association and a University alumnus. Please send comments to [email protected]