Consolidation is having a significant negative effect on the diversity of viewpoints and voices heard on AM/FM radio, according to a report submitted to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that argues against further deregulation of radio station ownership.
On behalf of the musicFIRST Coalition and the Future of Music Coalition, attorney Rachel Stilwell of the Law Offices of Rachel Stilwell in Calabasas, Calif., filed the 50-plus-page comment Monday (April 29). First signed by Trevor Francis of musicFIRST and Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition, the filing requests the FCC retain the Local Radio Ownership Rule (LROR) in its entirety. The LROR instated a limit on the number of AM/FM radio stations that a single entity can own in a single market on a sliding scale based on the size of the market, promoting diversity, competition and localism in so doing. In order to work around this rule while acquiring more stations, broadcast owners often put down roots in multiple markest; for example, Univision Radio owns 58 stations spread across 42 major markets, 7 in large and medium markets, and 1 in a small market.
While much focus was on the end of Obama-era net neutrality regulations last year, FCC chairman Ajit Pai created a stir in the radio community with the "Modernization of Media Regulation" initiative that aimed to loosen media ownership restrictions. Ahead of the FCC's regular review every four years of broadcast ownership rules in December 2018, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) lobbied the FCC to drastically reduce caps on how many stations a single owner can have. NAB president and CEO Gordon Smith argued in a letter at the time -- and in its own 206-page proposal that was filed on Monday as well -- that abolishing these "outdated radio ownership rules" was necessary to create broadcast entities big and powerful enough to compete for listeners' time with satellite and digital radio, as well as tech titans like Facebook and Google.
"The only similarity between Google/Facebook and radio is that we're all in the advertising business," Stilwell quotes Radio Ink magazine CEO Eric Rhoads as saying. "That's where it stops. Their approach to advertising is so utterly different that no one is going to spend more in radio because Company A or Company B has more stations."
Furthermore, Stilwell -- and many other members of the music industry who are opposed to deregulation -- argues, terrestrial radio conglomerates already enjoy a competitive advantage over digital service providers because they are exempt from paying royalties to artists. "It would be unfair for the Commission to give those terrestrial radio broadcasters who have already purchased the currently allowed maximum number of AM/FM stations in a given marketplace an even greater competitive advantage over other audio delivery platforms in those markets by further loosening the Local Radio Station Ownership Caps," she writes.
Stilwell's extensive report goes on to address other implications of consolidation, including the elimination of local on-air personalities and diverse perspectives and programming. The core tenet of her argument is two cases -- 1943's See Nat'l Broad. Co. v. United States and 1978's FCC v. Nat'l Citizens Comm. for Broad. -- in which the U.S. Supreme Court delivered the verdict that the FCC must uphold the notion that "diversification of mass media ownership serves the public interest by promoting diversity of program and services viewpoints, as well as preventing undue concentration of power." As part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit upheld the dictate that the FCC must serve in the "public interest"; thus, by the transitive property, promoting diversification is in the public interest.
In 2012, Berkeley, California, -based urban radio station KBLX was sold to radio conglomerate Entercom, which replaced KBLX's morning show with the syndicated Steve Harvey Morning Show and fired longtime program director and host Kevin Brown. Local listeners were dismayed and radio journalists and experts troubled. The move may have trimmed operational costs and increased the station's accessibility to the top-tier talent Harvey hosted on his show -- which Entercom perhaps thought necessary to defray the profit margins offered by urban and smooth jazz-format stations as compared to, say, pop and classic rock -- but it was widely protested and came at the expense of a beloved on-air voice that provided a platform for regional artists, neighborhood news and local events promotion.
Five years earlier, Stilwell notes, then-senator Barack Obama and then-senator John F. Kerry wrote that minority-owned radio and television stations and newspapers must be preserved. They provided, as an example, essential coverage of Hurricane Katrina's impact on underserved and poor communities and and the crucial role such stations played during the civil rights movement -- neither of which were covered in such depth by more mainstream-concerned media outlets. "The FCC has failed to adequately assess the state of minority-owned media or develop constructive ways to encourage underrepresented entities to become larger players in the media landscape," the two politicians wrote at the time.
Stilwell also provides compelling research that, at least in some instances, consolidation has vastly reduced the number of female artists heard on country radio. It's a topic that has come up in recent weeks as studies conducted by USC's Annenberg Inclusion Initiative and University of Ottawa's Dr. Jada E. Watson have revealed how male-dominated country radio is. In consultation with Massarsky Consulting Research and Analysis and using charts data from Mediabase, Stilwell and her team studied airplay at nine AM/FM country radio stations that flipped from CBS-owned in 2016 to Entercom-owned in 2018. During that timeframe, spins by female artists decreased from 10.8 percent to 9 percent, while spins by male artists increased from 85.2 percent to 87.5 percent. (Mixed-gender ensembles, which programmers code as female, decreased from 4 percent to 3.5 percent.)
They found this same pattern when looking at a group of country stations that changed hands in 2011, when Cumulus bought Citadel. Between 2010 (before the sale) and 2014 (after the sale), spins by women artists dropped from 13.8 percent to 11.1 percent, while spins by men stayed almost the same at 78.5 and 78.4 respectively. They also noticed that the overall number of songs decreased 32.2 percent during that time period; and the number of songs by women was decreased significantly more than songs by men. Neither Cumulus nor Entercom had not yet responded to a request for comment at press time.
"It is imperative that the Commission not further deregulate radio station ownership during this Quadrennial Review, and that the Commission should instead conduct studies that will help determine whether there are correlations between underrepresentation of female artists on AM/FM country stations and past consolidation of country radio stations at local market levels," Stilwell writes.
And therein lies the end goal of this report. Though Stilwell provides damning evidence of the effects of consolidation, the submission itself is not necessarily an indictment, but a call for the FCC to conduct research to confirm her preliminary findings before moving forward with deregulation. "While we are not asking the Commission to regulate music formats at AM/FM radio," she concludes, "We do think it is important that the Commission further study the effect of local radio consolidation on viewpoint diversity on playlists at local levels, as conveyed through recorded music."
This article has been updated.