Bad-boy rapper Eminem complained on his summer smash "Without Me" that the "FCC won't let me be." But critics of media consolidation say the commission is going too easy on the hip-hop mega- star, or at least on the stations airing his tunes.
It's not that they have a gripe with Eminem's profanity-laced bits. They just want him played a little less: Anybody bypassing urban stations on the dial would have been almost as likely to hear "Without Me" on alternative-rock, pop and dance-oriented stations, too.
That's the problem with radio these days, says the Future of Music Coalition, a group of musicians and media watchdogs. Playlists suffer from tremendous overlap and offer little opportunity for local artists and local tastes. Last week, they derided industry claims that radio mergers created more diversity in station formats as little more than industry propaganda.
"There is a tremendous overlap of songs between supposedly distinct formats," said Jennifer Toomey, the coalition's executive director. "Format variety is not a substitute for true format diversity."
Since media conglomerates began buying radio stations after the 1996 Telecommunications Act removed limits on the number that one company can own, there has been a proliferation of formats, with only slight variety in their actual playlists, the coalition argues. A merger wave has put two-thirds of industry revenue into the hands of 10 radio groups.
The industry responds that the consolidation and resulting efficiencies were necessary to return financial health to a long-struggling mom-and-pop business. Because of the mergers, big groups have eliminated duplicate formats in most markets and introduced new ones.
The coalition's new report, however, submitted to the FCC last week to bolster the case against further relaxation of radio-ownership limits, attempts to debunk the industry's claims.
The commission is currently reviewing nearly all its media-ownership rules—others include TV-household reach and cable-subscriber share limits—and is expected to relax many this spring. The coalition is calling for tougher radio limits, but, in today's deregulatory environment, it can realistically hope only to stanch further relaxation.
A listener survey also conducted by the coalition found audiences unhappy with radio today, as evidenced by declining amount of time listening and a desire for fewer ads and longer playlists.
The credibility of Miss Cleo
The coalition's research was ridiculed by the NAB in a point-by-point rebuttal debunking the study's "myths." Said NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton, "This study has less credibility than Miss Cleo. Their findings were directly contradicted by the FCC." An FCC study released in October found that radio playlists have become more diverse within individual markets but slightly less diverse nationally.
"Clearly, we hit a nerve," said Toomey in response to the NAB broadside. "There would be no reason to issue such a lengthy screed if the study was as flawed as they say it is."
Certainly, Eminem wasn't the only format-jumper. According to the coalition's review of the July 31 rankings in Radio & Records
magazine, Creed's "One Last Breath" hit the top 30 in five formats: Hot Adult Contemporary, Alternative Rock, Pop, Rock and Active Rock. In fact, among the 390 slots available in the 13 categories tracked by R&R's Top 30 lists, 179 songs appeared in at least two formats and many of those in three or more.
For example, the Urban and Contemporary Hit Radio (rhythmic) formats shared 38 songs on a 50-song sampled playlist, a 76% overlap. Although that example was the most extreme, 18 other format pairings showed overlap ranging from 18% to 58%.
The study also found that, while nearly 4,000 radio owners remain, virtually every geographic market is dominated by four radio companies controlling 70% of market share and, in most small markets, by companies controlling 90% or more. The top four firms nationwide—Clear Channel, Viacom, Cox and Entercom—now hold 49.3% listeners, and nearly every format is dominated by a four-company bloc comprising those or other big station groups.