Tag Archives: FCC License

“Corporate FM”

corporate fmKansas City Filmmaker Kevin McKinney originally released his movie “Corporate FM” in 2012, but unless you lived near a community that was screening the film or attended a film festival where it was being shown, you probably never saw it. Or even heard of it.

Amazon Prime

After re-editing the film in 2015 to reflect updates and changes in commercial radio since 2012, McKinney decided it was time to let more people access the information he covered in the film and just released it on Amazon Prime. (Here’s the LINK ) “Corporate FM” explores the consolidation of radio after the Telcom Act of 1996 and how big corporations with the help of Wall Street and private equity firms swallowed up the radio industry in America.

February 1996

I remember the day that President Bill Clinton signed the Telcom Act of 1996 into law. Clinton signs Telcom Act of 1996It was supposed to provide competition between the phone companies and the cable companies with the goal to increase services and reduce prices to the consumer.

Inserted into the bill at the 11th hour were two paragraphs that would change the radio industry forever.

In the film, Robert McChesney, Professor of Communication Studies, University of Illinois points out that commercial media lobbyists, without a single public hearing or any public debate, would insert these paragraphs and open up the consolidation floodgates for radio/TV. Politicians would later say they didn’t know what they were voting for. Even President Clinton would say that he didn’t know that those two paragraphs had been added before he signed the bill into law.

Cumulus and Clear Channel

As the McKinney film told the story of the rise of Cumulus and Clear Channel, it reminded me of my time with both of those companies.

In Waterloo, Iowa I was running the #1, #2 and #3 radio stations. When Cumulus took them over, John Dickey showed up at the stations and proceeded to tell all of us gathered in the station’s conference room what our new logos would look like, what our new jingle packages would sound like, who our new station voice guys would be, how our playlist would be compiled, who are new consultants were etc. To say we were all stunned would be an understatement.

Then later when I was working for Clear Channel (after the Bain/Lee takeover, but before it became iHeartMedia) in Sussex, New Jersey, we received a survey from corporate asking us how local decisions were made about branding, marketing, promotions, music and the like. I assume a similar survey was sent to every market cluster inside Clear Channel.

When the results were tabulated at HQ, we then received directives that no longer would those types of decisions be made on the local level. Local radio had changed.

Local Bands

Growing up, local radio was a way for local bands to get exposure and grow their audience. “Corporate FM” tells the story of how Jewel became a national artist being discovered by local radio and played on-the-air in San Diego.

In fact, it was seeing a drop in attendance at live shows that got McKinney to wondering what was happening, and giving birth to his movie about the consolidation/corporatization of the radio industry.

I know a local band here in Winchester, Virginia “Sons of Liberty.” They play all over the Shenandoah Valley and beyond. They have a CD that Rob McKenzie of Fireworks Magazine spoke glowingly about. Where you won’t hear the “Sons of Liberty” music is on the radio.

Oh, they’ve been heard on an FM radio station (98 Rock) out of Harrisonburg, Virginia on their Sunday night “Wet Paint” show that starts at 11pm. But as “Corporate FM” points out it takes repetition to have an audience become familiar with anything, and for someone to decide they like it, or don’t. Radio used to provide that type of exposure and then monitor audience reaction to see if the record was a hit or a miss. (Remember features like “Champ & Challenger?”)

Sneak Preview

ABC Radio Networks used to air a feature hosted by WABC’s Chuck Leonard called “Sneak Preview.” The network would call affiliates of the ABC Contemporary Radio Network to get their hottest new song and then play it to a nationwide audience. I remember being at WBEC in Pittsfield, Massachusetts when we told Chuck that our hottest new song was “Tracy by The Cufflinks.” He told us he had a terrible time trying to find a copy of the song in New York City.  But Chuck Leonard did find it and it played over the ABC network to a national audience. That was how radio made the hits.

Fifty to Six

“Corporate FM” tells how in the 80s ninety percent of mass media in America was owned and controlled by about fifty different companies, but after the Telcom Act of 1996 it was down to just six corporations.

“Most radio studios are completely empty after 7pm and for the entire weekend.

They set the phone lines to “busy” so callers will believe that someone is there.”

-Slide shown in film

Big N Rich

The popular country recording artists “Big N Rich” addressed the FCC in Memphis, Tennessee. They told the commissioners that one person in a corporate office today can dictate what 35, 55, or 100 stations play.

“Let’s say an artist puts out a song with a political viewpoint and that corporate person says I don’t believe in that position so we’re not going to play that record (Dixie Chicks?). One guy can affect what 30 million people get to hear.

That’s censorship.”

-John Rich

Fatherly Advice

Dick Fatherly says “the broadcasters have become the victims, and the winners are – who do you think? -Goldman Sachs.”

Josh Kosman, who wrote the book “The Buyout of America” put it this way: “Private equity took the radio business that was doing pretty well and gutted it.”

Josh has studied how private equity has impacted all industries in America. He used a simple example to explain the difference between you or I buying a house and a private equity firm buying a business doing a leverage buyout (LBO).

When we buy a house, we put down say 30% as a down payment and then take out a mortgage for the 70% balance.

When private equity buys a radio station, they make a small down payment and then the radio station they’re buying takes on the debt for the balance, leaving the radio station with crushing new debt.

The private equity companies then charge management and other fees, making back their down payment money, and a whole lot more. So, it’s zero risk to them.

It reminds me of the guys on the Atlantic City Boardwalk who used to entice you to let them guess your weight and if they got it wrong you won a prize. The only way those guys lost is if you didn’t pay them to guess your weight. For if they got your weight right, they gave you nothing and if they got your weight wrong, they gave you a prize that was valued less than what you paid them to play the game.

“Financial deals allow the corporate owners to keep their stations after bankruptcy.

This prevents local owners from reviving local radio.”

-Slide shown in the film

For those who hold out hope that if/when the big corporate entities fail, and it will return radio to local operators once more, that slide should send a chill down your spine.

America’s bankruptcy laws now favor the debtor in the corporate world.

Conclusion

This is probably a film that many will miss and that’s unfortunate. It’s only a little over an hour in length. It’s well worth your time.

For this is a film not just about what happened to the radio industry but what is happening to our way of life, in industry after industry. This modus operandi is being repeated today.

The people in the film offer their ideas for making radio great again.

I won’t spoil that for you, so you’ll have to watch the film.

Some of the statements made by various participants have since been proven wrong from the time the film was shot. Some of the statements are also inaccurate in terms of how today’s FCC license renewals can be challenged.

In all fairness, many people are still believing that the way it was, is the way it still is. Only it isn’t. Those laws have been changed by corporate lobbyists too.

I hope you will watch the film “Corporate FM” and then post your comments here on DickTaylorBlog dot com.

Note: Don’t have Amazon Prime, you can rent this movie for $2.99

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Live & Local ?

Stuck in a Time WarpI’ve been attending a lot of radio meetings these past years and one refrain I’ve heard over and over and over and over is that the power of radio is it’s “live & local.”

This week, the FCC voted along party lines 3 to 2 to eliminate the Main Studio Rule.

1934 Congress Establishes the FCC

The first regulatory body to oversee radio was the Federal Radio Commission (FRC) that was established by the Radio Act of 1927. The FRC was created to, among other things, insure that the public airwaves of America were used in the “public interest, convenience and/or necessity.” The FRC was given regulatory powers for licensing all radio stations and insuring the airwaves were assigned to broadcasters capable of providing quality broadcasts. The amateurs were assigned to another piece of the broadcast spectrum which today is known as Amateur Radio Service or Ham Operators.

Amateur Radio like AM/FM radio is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission which was established by Congress with the Communications Act of 1934.

Main Studio Rule

So, this week when the FCC voted to end the Main Studio Rule, what did that mean according to the FCC’s regulations that have been in place in 1934 (and per Gregg Skall) updated in 1988 to make them clearer? FCC attorney Skall wrote back in 1991 in his “Main Studio Rule and Staffing” memo:

The main studio rule as clarified in 1988 requires a station to maintain a main studio within its principal community contour “which has the capability adequately to meet its function…of serving the needs and interests of the residents of the station’s community of license.” That rule has now been further revised to allow a main studio to be located either within 25 miles from its community of license reference coordinates, or within the principal community contours of any station, of any service, licensed to its community of license. (See memo, Revised Main Studio and Public File Rules). Jones Eastern requires the station to maintain a “meaningful management and staff presence” at the main studio on a full-time basis during regular business hours.

You can read the full memo here.

LIVE RADIO

Since the introduction of automation systems, syndication, satellite delivery and computer voice tracking, the LIVE aspect of radio has been on the wane. Even in the #1 radio market in America, New York City, stations may or may not have a live operator behind the microphone when you’re tuned in.

When I was starting out in radio, we used to have to announce whether a program was live or pre-recorded so the listeners wouldn’t be deceived about the broadcast. In the early days of radio, virtually all radio was live and so it was the exception for something to have been recorded.

Today, it’s more likely what you are listening to is not live but syndicated, voice-tracked and pre-recorded.

LOCAL RADIO

With the Main Studio Rule, the goal was at least there would be a live person at the station and the studio would be in the community the licensee was licensed to serve.

Lance Venta writing on RadioInsight wrote “But what will it (elimination of the Main Studio Rule) mean in the short term? Probably not a lot. In the long term, be prepared for a much leaner broadcast facility.” You can read Lance’s entire article “The Radio Station of the Future…Today!” here.

The National Association of Broadcasters has been lobbying for the elimination of the Main Studio Rule, and its executive VP of communications Dennis Wharton said “We’re confident that cost savings realized from ending the main studio rule will be reinvested by broadcasters in better programming and modernized equipment to better serve our local communities.”

Brick & Mortar Presence

FCC attorney Scott R. Flick said that the Main Studio Rule was really a government mandate for radio to have a brick-and-mortar presence in an internet age. “Its existence hindered stations from evolving and adapting to the rapidly changing business strategies of their many non-broadcast competitors.”

It’s ironic that the biggest online retailer, Amazon, is now in the process of acquiring a brick-and-mortar presence as the radio industry appears to be moving in the opposite direction.

Public Safety

When a broadcaster doesn’t have a studio in the local community it serves, it delivers its programming through the internet, satellites, microwaves or wired lines. Broadcasters have been quick to point out how these forms of communication are first to go down in natural disasters.

What seems to be missing in this conversation, is a Black Swan event. Will radio be ready for a Black Swan?

Today’s Big Regulatory Difference

The big difference I see today for radio versus its toddler years is how it is regulated. The Radio Act of 1927 provided the foundation for all broadcast regulation right up until today. While more Acts were passed and made law over the years, the basics remain much the same as when they were first made law.

Some of the key provisions in the original Act that we’ve deviated from today are:

  • Limiting the number of broadcasters to foster higher quality radio broadcasts versus having more stations of poor or mediocre qualities
  • Radio broadcasters would operate in the “public interest, convenience and necessity”
  • Radio would be a regulated medium to assure high quality and operating in the public interest
  • Radio would be commercial and privately owned (a condition that made radio broadcasting in the USA different from every other country in the world)

Those who complain that radio isn’t like it used to be only need look at how broadcast regulations have been changed over the past century; the biggest change being the Telcom Act of 1996.

Make Radio LiVE & LOCAL Again

On May 24, 2004, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) held a “Broadcast Localism Hearing” in Rapid City, South Dakota.  The president, general manager and co-owner of KLQP-FM licensed to Madison, Minnesota (population 1,767) Maynard Meyer addressed the commission.  He told them (I’ve edited his comments. The full text can be found here. )

“Localism in radio is not dead, but it is in dire need of resuscitation in many areas.  I have been involved in the radio business in announcing, sales, engineering and management for about 36 years, all of my experience is in communities of 5,000 people or less.  We personally live in the communities we serve so we know the ‘issues,’ we work to address them in our programming and have been doing so for the past 21 years.“

“A few years ago, many stations operated this way, but much of that has changed for a variety of reasons.  I think the beginning of the end of local broadcast service started in the 1980s when the Federal Communications Commission approved Docket 80-90.”

Mr. Meyer went on to explain to the FCC how many communities that “on paper” had a local radio station actually found that the transmitter was being fed from another location tens of miles away.  Mr. Meyer went on to say:

“I don’t think this is the best way to promote local radio service.  From what I have seen through my personal experience, as soon as a hometown studio is closed and relocated, the local service is relocated as well.”

What do you think?

 

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Colleges That Give-up Their FCC License

fcc-logoI recently wrote an article for Radio World about the impact of colleges that sold their student radio station’s FCC license had on the pedagogical program at those institutions. You can read that article in Radio World here.

 

 

Today, I’d like to share with you something else I learned in talking with educators from around the country while researching this article. The FM license in every case connected the student station to the community. It was the heart and soul of the operation. When the license was sold and the station would become an online Internet only radio station it lost that connection.

 

Now the irony is that all of these student radio stations didn’t stop broadcasting over the FM band and then become Internet radio stations. No, they already had been streaming on the Internet and had listeners from all over the world in many cases. So why didn’t that continue to sustain these radio stations?

 

Let me make a comparison to help you understand this a little better. When you buy a magazine, do you read only one article and then toss it away or do you turn all the pages and look at other things in addition to that cover story that first attracted your attention and caused you to purchase the magazine? You read, if only skimming, the entire magazine. You spent time with that publication and became a little more invested in it. If you subscribe to the magazine this would be akin to being a P1 listener to a radio station.

 

When you see an article from a magazine online do you read the whole magazine or just the article that captured your attention and then leave? You do what we all do. It’s one and done. No investment in the magazine, just the article.

 

Well, what I learned is that it apparently isn’t all that much different when it comes to student streaming radio stations. It’s more of a hit and run.

 

There’s also a problem with student online radio stations in that they have limited connection capacity in most cases. That means only a limited number of people can listen to the stream, unless the college makes a big investment in expanding the capacity in the number of listeners can be connected at the same time. This is somewhat solved if a student station goes with a large online aggregator like TuneIn or Live365.

 

But let’s be real, when you enter a store and everything in the place is priced the same – FREE – which would you chose? The best you could find. Good Luck student stations.

 

Contrast that with student radio stations that broadcast over FM radio. What you find is that they are now only competing within the local community of service and in that playing field, have a chance to break through and be heard.

 

Over 92% of Americans 12-years of age and older still have the radio habit and listen every week. When it comes to listening to streaming stations on the Internet the percentage of penetration doesn’t come close. And those that do listen to streaming Internet music are very likely tuned to Pandora, if the current data available about such things is to be believed.

 

Another thing I heard was how more and more of these student radio stations were working to get a LPFM license so they could return to the air on the FM radios in their community.

 

When Zane Lowe was getting ready to launch Apple’s Beats1, he told the trades that a big part of the three months leading up to the launch was spent trying to come up with a better name for the new service than radio. They couldn’t do it.

 

Radio is the brand, because it works.

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