Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Merge on the Hill

Yesterday's Senate Commerce Committee hearings on "The Future of Radio" covered a surprising amount of ground -- everything from media ownership, to localism, to webcasting royalties. In fact, there's so much to talk about that we've created two blog posts. (This is the second!)

Senators aside, the hearing had some real star power in the form of witness Mac McCaughan — longtime rocker and co-founder of Merge Records. (You know, the 20 year-old North Carolina label with acts like Arcade Fire and Spoon?) McCaughan spoke clearly and eloquently about how non-commercial broadcasting in its many forms has made a major difference not just on his business, but also in his personal development.

“As a kid I went to sleep and woke up to the radio in an era when even on album rock radio the DJ was playing his or her favorite new records,” he said. “Then at the age of 12, college radio exposed me to music that I had never heard on top 40 or album rock stations. The music I discovered then set me on the course of making music myself and starting a record label. And since that time, as both a performer and a label owner, I have relied on radio as an essential component of the work we do helping audiences learn about our music.”

McCaughan talked about the importance of diversity, competition and localism in radio, urging Congress to “take action to allow for the growth of non-commercial radio, and the expansion of Low Power FM into more urban settings.” Certainly Senator Dorgan was in agreement — he’d earlier suggested holding official proceedings to deal with the FCC’s recent movements towards changing laws regarding media ownership, which would have an extremely negative impact on the non-commercial radio that McCaughn and so many others cherish and rely on.

“I want to urge this committee to take the necessary steps to ensure that our media landscape does not become even more consolidated,” McCaughan said. “The deregulation that followed the 1996 Telecommunications Act allowed for unprecedented consolidation in commercial radio, which has resulted in a homogeneity that is often out-of-step with artists, entrepreneurs, media professionals and educators — not to mention listeners.” Check out FMC's 2006 Radio Study for extensive documentation on the effects of consolidation.

But what about the internet? Although there was plenty of discussion about online royalty structures, the important issue of network neutrality was not explicitly examined. McCaughan made plenty of room for the topic in his written testimony, but due to time constraints, didn’t get the chance to fully speak his mind about the subject. Still, he stressed that “labels and artists should have the benefit of competing on an equal playing field,” stating that “Any policy decision that enables the reestablishment of old bottlenecks or creates a tiered internet would be a step backward.” FMC's ongoing Rock the Net campaign is a great way for bands and artists to get involved in the fight for net neutrality.

Much of the focus of the hearing remained on radio, although its actual definition was at times unclear. In his opening statement, Senator Inouye waxed nostalgic for simpler times: “I suppose radio isn’t as sexy as the internet,” he offered. “But I remember growing up on it, back when it was local.” Senator Snowe, who talked about the decline of local stations in her home state of Maine and asked questions pertaining to broadcast diversity, echoed Inouye’s comments about localism. FMC has published a media ownership factsheet that should help clarify these issues. While you're at it, check out our low-power FM factsheet for info on other community radio possibilities.

It’s definitely encouraging to know that many of our representatives are concerned about diversity, competition and localism in radio. And it’s doubly great that Mac McCaughan would take the time to offer his perspectives on these issues in the very place where they most need to be discussed.

Watch McCaughan's testimony (and the rest of the hearing) here.

No comments: