Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Radio Daze

They say you better listen to the voice of reason
/ But they don't give you any choice 'cause they think that it's treason. . .

-Elvis Costello, "Radio, Radio"

In the course of doing some internal research here at Future of Music Coalition, we rediscovered a fantastic article by John Nova Lomax, which ran in Houston Press back in January. The piece is all about how the Federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 resulted in the appalling homogenization of the commercial airwaves.

In the story, Lomax lays bare the tactics through which the National Association of Broadcasters claims diversity on the dial. FMC Executive Director Jenny Toomey is quoted heavily:

I called Jenny Toomey, director of the FMC (and an excellent musician), to see if she could answer the NAB's claim. Turns out she can -- most of those "new formats" they tout are just fresh applications of lipstick on the same old pigs. "This is something we identified a long time ago -- all of the data that was used to try to show that consolidation had led to more diversity was simply them thinking up new format names. It's very easy to thin-slice the exact same pie of songs under different names. We all know that 'active rock' might have very similar songs to 'classic rock.’"

The article is downright pissy in regards to the wasteland that is corporate radio. It also happens to be right on.

In related news, the NAB continues to oppose the public performance royalty for sound recordings, calling it the “performance tax”. In response, the MusicFIRST Coalition sent the NAB a dictionary and told them to look up the definition of tax. Clearly it’s not a tax, but the NAB has employed the word as a way to sully this debate. Calling it a tax also give members of Congress some fake comfort in voting for something that would retain the NAB’s exemption from paying a performance royalty that is currently paid by all of the NAB’s competition -- webcasters, satellite radio, cable TV and non-interactive music subscription services. Why is the NAB, the most established of all these mediums, still getting music for free, when all the other radio-like services compensate musicians, songwriters, publishers and labels?

Remember, the terrestrial public performance right (which already exists in 75 other countries) ensures that performers and also get paid a small royalty when their song is played on the radio.

This is tremendously important for jazz, classical and country artists who often perform works by other composers. The establishment of a public performance right in this country would mean that when you hear John Coltrane's unmistakable rendition of “My Favorite Things,” not only would songwriters Rodgers & Hammerstein receive a royalty, but also Coltrane -- or at least their respective estates. This seems pretty fair to us.

Yet the NAB routinely cries poor in this debate. Surely they can afford to pay the artists, even considering radio's ever-diminishing revenues. Maybe the NAB should stop complaining about competition from internet and satellite radio and focus more on diversity? Terrestrial radio is killing their golden goose by not focusing on the medium's built-in localism. Satellite radio is mandated not to do community-oriented broadcasting, and the internet is simply too big. But your old-fashioned FM stations have an incredible opportunity to offer diverse programming. Why don't they? Because greedy media monopolies emboldened by consolidation are only interested in aggregating the broadest possible demographics to increase ad revenue.

By the time they realize their folly, it'll be too late. Radio — once a great public vehicle for information and entertainment — will have one the way of the dodo.

For more info, check out FMC's 2006 Radio Summary. We've linked to it a lot over the last couple of weeks, but it's just that good.

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