The Music Beat

Dylan Dekay-Bemis

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Hate it or love it, radio definitely isn’t what it used to be. While business concerns have always lurked in the background, yesteryear’s radio was much more concerned with the public interest than the bottom line. Radio stations were as vibrant as the individual communities in which they were found and stations helped jumpstart the careers of many great and innovative musicians, as well as some of the greatest music movements of the past 50 years.

But corporate concerns have moved to the forefront of radio in the past decade or so. Increasingly relaxed government regulations have pushed station ownership out of the hands of many and into the pocketbooks of a select few. Before the passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act loosened station ownership limits, there were more than 5,000 individual station owners. Today, radio is controlled by only four major companies -Chancellor, Infinity, Capstar, and Clear Channel.

What effect has this consolidation of ownership had on us, the listeners? Flip on the dial and have a listen, the evidence is in the ears. An endless barrage of stale bubblegum-pop floods the airwaves, most songs sound the same and project similar messages. This constant assault of uninspiring music perpetuates the idea that being an unoriginal carbon-copy is the formula for success, resulting in a state of stagnation in pop music.

The monopolizing of radio has brought new ways of doing business. The big radio station groups have centralized their decision making about which songs to add to their play lists. The implications and results of this practice are scary. With across the board decision-making, stations have been stripped of their unique local flavor and local artists are largely shut-out, resulting in a homogeneous radio environment.

 Instead of knowledgeable DJs making or breaking hit songs, it is now up to out of touch businessmen to decide what songs are played. Since most middle-aged corporate types aren’t very in tune with youth culture, how are they supposed to decide what songs to play on hip-hop and Top 40 stations aimed at young people? They don’t decide, they let the record companies decide for them.

 Today’s radio is largely bought by the record companies and “pay for play” is common practice. Laws in the ‘50s and ‘60s aimed to curb radio industry payola, a practice where record companies paid DJs in exchange for playing certain songs. But laws can always be sidestepped, and shady ingenuity has resulted in a resurgence of pay for play in the past decade.

The new payola is similar to the money laundering techniques used by crime lords to cover up their illegal ventures. Crooked middlemen, known as “indies,” are used to cancel out any appearance of a conflict of interes between the radio station head honchos and the record execs.

The indies develop close ties to station program directors and personnel and help to “suggest” songs that should be added to play lists. If the indies suggestions are added and receive radio play, the record companiesthat produced the songs pay the indies a certain amount of money. The indies in turn give a cut of their profits to their radio station business partners.

These dishonest and manipulative practices have helped to diminish the greatness of music culture. Fortunately, they haven’t gone unnoticed. With public scrutiny gaining momentum, and the broadcasting licenses for California radio stations up for renewal on Dec.1, now is the time to help change the landscape of radio. Several Bay Area organizations are spearheading a campaign objecting to the license renewal for local Clear Channel stations 106.1 KMEL, Wild 94.9 and KNEW, 910 AM talk radio. The organizations are filing formal complaints to the Federal Communications Commission demanding that the Clear Channel stations become more involved in community affairs, play more local artists and recapture the diverse essence of community-based radio. To get involved, hit up, and in the wise words of the late Hunter S. Thompson, “don’t take any guff from these swine.”

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