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Big Media's Air Raid

As a long-time radio veteran, and someone who has followed the story of media consolidation as closely as anyone, even I was appalled by the details of the Minot, North Dakota train derailment that Eric Klinenberg recounts in the introduction to his new book, Fighting for Air.

According to Klinenberg's excellent narrative, local officials tried to contact the radio stations in Minot to declare an emergency because a toxic cloud five miles long, two-and-a-half miles wide, and 350-feet high was heading straight for town.

There was only one problem: Clear Channel owned every radio station in Minot, and all of its programming was automated. There wasn't a single person in any of the local studios to answer the calls of emergency response officials to alert the public about the impending danger.

By the time the cloud had dissipated, one man was dead, and more than a thousand people needed medical care. If Minot's radio stations hadn't been consolidated and downsized, the town could have been easily evacuated before the slow-moving cloud reached the city limits.

And that's just the introduction of Fighting for Air.

Klinenberg, a sociologist from New York University with a reporter's gift for uncovering the stories behind the stories, methodically chronicles the effect of consolidation on every medium since the disastrous Telecommunications Act of 1996, including network and local television; network and local radio; mainstream and alternative newspapers; and the Internet.

Why does radio suck now? Klinenberg explains it.

Why does 24-hour cable television news cover so little news? Klinenberg explains it.

Why does it seem like we have more media options than ever, yet less information about public affairs? Klinenberg explains it.

He effectively and meticulously presents evidence of the cost-cutting that inevitably follows big media mergers, and shows how these have led to decreased news staffs in every medium. That, in turn, has led to a country that only appears to have more information available, while it actually has far less. (What's more terrifying than an uninformed electorate? An uninformed electorate that actually thinks it's informed.)

He shows how the increased power of these few media corporations has led to several big stories being buried in the broadcast media, including - and especially - the effect of media consolidation.

He chronicles the complete disregard the current FCC (and the previous edition headed by Michael Powell, Colin's son) has for public, professional, and scholarly opinion about consolidation.

The arguments against Big Media are clinically enumerated by Klinenberg, most convincingly in the sections about the loss of local news and information. Klinenberg also thoroughly and convincingly debunks the arguments that were presented by the industry before the Telecommunications Act of 1996. (Just to take one example, those 1.5 million new jobs that were promised? Never materialized. Instead, 500,000 jobs have been eliminated in the consolidation accelerated by the Act.)

So what is the argument for further deregulation, like that intensely lobbied for by Tribune Company, among others? I thought the answer produced the funniest quote in the book, from a Heritage Foundation article often cited by Powell: "The real danger to Americans is that outdated and unnecessary FCC restrictions will limit improvements in media markets and technologies, limiting the benefits that they can provide."

Got it? They aren't making enough money to improve technologies. If you just let them own it all . . . they'll work harder at making it better.

Is there honestly anyone in the world who believes that? Certainly no one who has ever worked in the media. So why aren't members of the broadcast media (who would personally be most harmed by further consolidation) coming out to aggressively point out how ridiculous this argument is?

Simple. To tell the truth about your corporate media bosses is to commit career suicide.

To tell the truth about the FCC is to bring down the wrath of the FCC on your bosses, which is an even more effective way of committing career suicide.

Fighting For Air isn't the first book to tell this story, but it's probably the most impressively researched and well-written.

My only quibble with Klinenberg's book is his assignation of political motives to some of the big media CEOs. In my experience, these guys don't have a political agenda as much as they have insatiable greed. Scratch the surface of an apparent political agenda (even Rupert Murdoch's) and you're bound to find just another money grab.

At its heart, however, Fighting for Air tells an important truth: The big media corporations have completely abdicated the public interest obligations required as a precondition of operating the public airwaves, and the FCC, which was founded to keep an eye on this above all other things, is helping them do it.

I guess it takes a sociologist to tell the real truth about the media.

*

Rick Kaempfer was a Chicago radio producer (Steve Dahl & Garry Meier, John Records Landecker) and host for 20 years. He is the co-author of The Radio Producer's Handbook (Allworth Press, 2004) and the author of $everance, a satirical novel about the broadcast industry coming out in April on ENC Press. Rick covers the media regularly on one of his many blogs and is a frequent Beachwood contributor.



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Posted on January 27, 2007


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