You Have To Trust in the Market

I've worked both sides of the street on the consolidation issue. Those opposed to this development that has swept over our profession include liberals, the guilds representing screenwriters and actors, and consumer groups. Also, my friend Andy Schwartzman of the Media Access Project, who with his relentless brilliance and dynamism has caused so much agita in the well-fed guts of today's media moguls.

All these important groups are expecting the FCC to allow even more consolidation.

As the commission weighs all the pleadings cascading into its deliberative process on the issue, it might be useful to consider just what a radio station is. I think it can resemble more than a jukebox. I believe a station achieves its highest calling when it resembles a platform, a forum, a soapbox, a podium, for the expression of many different viewpoints.

Every station has the potential to be more than merely a conduit for the delivery of information and hype about products, many of which we don't need and some can ill afford. If we do it right, a local radio station can, as former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo says, make a community "stronger, better, even sweeter" than it is.

There is no question that locally owned and locally operated radio stations are fast disappearing. No matter how much NAB spends on surveys designed to celebrate "diversity" on the airwaves, local, regional and community stations are succumbing to the siren song of the big group operators. Independent voices are being replaced by a cookie-cutter cacophony of the same-old, same-old music, often accompanied by vulgar, outrageous and tasteless stunts.

The old-time local broadcaster is being replaced by "asset managers" beholden to corporate masters a whole continent away.

Most stations today are run out of airport lounges by paid-gun, itinerant "market specialists" trying to squeeze every last dime out of their "properties." "Economies of scale," "win-win situations," "getting it done," "doin' what it takes" and "making it happen" have replaced quaint old phrases like "public trustee."

Now comes the "however." (I told you I've worked both sides of the street on this.) Besides being a disciple of Andy Schwartzman, I also follow those who believe in free speech and free enterprise and don't like government involvement in media.

I recall a very clear instruction I received one day from great, towering New York Sen. Jacob K. Javits: "You either believe in the genius of the free-enterprise system … or you do not."

I like the sound of that. At the end of the day, I'm with Sen. Javits. Maybe the free enterprise system corrects the excesses. Maybe they realize they can't run a thousand or more stations out of San Antonio. Maybe they start to dismantle these behemoths themselves and sell some of those properties off to independent entrepreneurs who will steer them back to the service of their communities. In any event, we don't need the FCC to clean up our mess.