On Radio: Strange Bedfellows
In the media policy wars of the early 2000s, when the Michael Powell-led FCC was hell-bent on eviscerating ownership restrictions, one corporate villain stood out for its egregiousness: Clear Channel Communications (Hissssss).
And deservedly so: as Exhibit A for the dangers of conglomeration run amok, Clear Channel and its 1,200 stations hit a kind of media-monopoly trifecta, bulldozing the values of diversity, localism, and market competition. They bought up all the stations they could in a given market, making sure to hit the maximum number of demographic niches, then programmed them centrally (and unimaginatively) from some computerized studio located in who knows where.
“Thank god,” both music lovers and radio fans said frequently during the Bush II years, “for college radio.”
Well, don’t look now, but guess who just went to bed with Clear Channel: college radio. Clear Channel – destroyer of adventurous playlists, scourge of the live local DJ – has now signed up more than a dozen top college stations for its iHeartRadio distribution service, including such esteemed stations as Radio DePaul, Seton Hall’s WSOU, and the terrific station at my own college, WDUB at Denison. Public stations are available through iHeartRadio too, such as New York’s WNYC, and more are on the way.
Clear Channel is bringing these local stations to the mobile space, competing with satellite radio’s national programming by offering a plethora of interesting local stations over cellular networks. Whereas Sirius XM often replicates the narrow market segmentation and tightly controlled playlists perfected by terrestrial broadcasters like, well, Clear Channel, iHeartRadio counter-programs them with “GOFR”: good old-fashioned radio, with real DJs in real local studios producing real local programming. The only difference is that the GOFR is arriving through your cell phone instead of your radio antenna.
To be clear: exploitation is still Clear Channel’s game. The company sells ads against these college radio streams, and none of that revenue is going back to the students or their institutions. In other words, the great enemy of radio localism has now found a way to co-opt localism, using these quirky local stations to add value to its national offerings but offering no revenue-sharing or other financial support in return.
Although one station manager I spoke with welcomed the potential for new listeners and greater exposure that will come from partnering with iHeartRadio, the material benefit to participating college stations will be minimal at best. Maybe alumni in Boston or Boise will tune in and, somewhere down the line, write a slightly larger check to their alma mater, but that’s about it.
In the meantime, the economic and policy supports for independent radio in the U.S. remain threatened, and ever more colleges and universities are selling off their radio stations. In fact, one of the college stations picked up by iHeartRadio, Rice’s KTRU, had its transmitter sold out from under it last year by the university; it has since streamed online and leased the local Pacifica affiliate’s HD radio capacity, which few can receive. In that specific case, distribution through Clear Channel seems like an improvement, but it is difficult to see how this deal does anything to preserve college radio nationally over the long term.
Be that as it may, the deal is further evidence that “radio” is undergoing more change, innovation, and excitement (for better and worse) than perhaps at any time since the 1920s. All that talk of “convergence” and “revolution” in visual media? As is often the case, it’s nothing compared to radio, which currently boasts more new platforms, technologies, business models, and programming forms than TV can shake a stick at.
Many people have a tendency to imagine, as they did in the 1950s, that radio is a dying form. It’s easy to do: none of my students seem to listen to much traditional, over-the-air radio, and if it weren’t for NPR, neither would most of the adults I know. But if Arbitron’s latest survey can be believed, more than 93% of Americans age 12 and above still listen to some radio each week, and in some demographic segments (e.g. Hispanics) the radio market is positively booming as a growth industry.
In terms of infrastructure, you now have your choice of satellite, analog terrestrial, digital terrestrial, and internet distribution offering you local and national programming. Sitting in your car, you can direct your own programming (e.g. Spotify and Pandora), choose your genre (Sirius XM and most terrestrial radio), listen to local stations from all over the country (iHeartRadio), or just plug in your phone or iPod and listen to your podcasts or your own music library.
We’re also seeing the effect on programming, such as the experimentation we’re seeing in the podcast space and innovative uses of audio in shows like 99% Invisible and Radiolab, and alternative business models such as “cottage networks” like TWiT and success stories like Jesse Thorn’s “Maximum Fun” podcast-based empire.
So while we continue to keep a wary eye on Clear Channel and the other behemoths in the radio industry, let’s also admit that, compared to a decade ago, it’s not the worst time to be a radio listener—or for that matter, a radio scholar. I don’t heart iHeartRadio, but I still heart radio.