There was a time – about 35 years ago – when you could drive a car across the United States and, by simply listening to your car radio, get a genuine sense of the personality of each town you visited.
| … you might have witnessed Joe Pinner (as kid show host "Mr. Knozit") attempting … to tear a slice of Sunbeam bread straight down the middle|
Had you stayed overnight, a quick spin through the local TV stations would have added layers of new flavor to the place you were visiting.
If the town had been Columbia, S.C., in 1967, you might have discovered Carolina "beach music," a special regional mix of rhythm & blues as played with great Southern gusto by "Woody with the Goodies" on WCOS Radio.
Had you switched on WIS-TV, the local NBC affiliate, you might have witnessed Joe Pinner (as kid show host "Mr. Knozit") trying, with a young guest, to tear a slice of Sunbeam bread straight down the middle to demonstrate its "freshness." Of course, the locals were always itching for the bread to crumble uncontrollably into Pinner's hands, as it occasionally did on live TV.
Or, if you were really lucky, you'd have stumbled into yours truly spinning 45s in the wee morning hours from inside a filthy studio in a glass bubble atop Doug Broome's Drive-In, a local hangout in downtown Columbia.
That, folks, was media diversity. Real, live local people doing real, live local programming, whether it was on radio or TV.
This is why I find it such a disconnect to read the spate of opinion about the latest efforts in Congress to restrict the mergers of media companies. The consolidation that has drastically changed local radio over the past few years now threatens local television. It's a hot potato issue that will determine the course of all broadcasting for the foreseeable future.
One of my favorite attempts to redefine "diversity" was in a recent op-ed column for South Carolina newspapers by Francis L. Rose Jr., communications director at the Progress & Freedom Foundation, an industry-backed organization that promotes deregulation of electronic media.
Rose challenged the efforts of Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) to restrain FCC Chairman Michael Powell's attempts to expand corporate ownership of media. "Hollings' new restrictions would kill competition, profits, jobs and choice," wrote Rose.
Citing the radio market in Sen. Hollings’ hometown of Charleston, S.C., Rose noted that 14 of the top 20 stations are owned by two companies. "These companies know diversity and choice are important; they're providing it. They're making market-based decisions and allowing listeners to decide what they want. Of the 10 most popular stations in the market, these two companies own nine. The market is providing for itself the choice, diversity and locality that Hollings wants to enforce by law," Rose wrote.
What constitutes diversity in Charleston? Rose lists formats: four R&B, two country, two oldies, four pop, three rock, two religious, two talk and one sports station. In his view, it appears that listener choice of multiple formats equals diversity.
However, Sen. Hollings sees the situation a bit differently. "I can tell you right now there's no choice at all, other than public radio," he said.
As a recent visitor to Charleston, my impression of local radio there is that it offers essentially the same homogenized programming found these days anywhere else in the United States. It's canned, overprogrammed and mostly devoid of local content or personality.
MORE OF THE SAME
This is nothing new. With radio broadcasting now a mega-business in the hands of very few corporations, the last vestiges of diversity, creativity and relevance are being squeezed out to ensure consistency, uniformity and maximum ratings. What was once the last stronghold of local, community-based electronic media has now been standardized and packaged for maximum profit.
Charleston's stations may offer different formats, but a variety of formats does not translate into diversity. Standardized playlists don't allow local on-air personalities to engage in eclectic experimentation with programming. In fact, many personalities are not local at all. They work from centralized studios far from their listeners. Many probably have never even visited the places where they are heard.
If American broadcast stations bought and paid for their spectrum, such maximization of profits might be their right. However, lost in the media ownership debate is the fact that this spectrum is owned by the public and loaned to the broadcasters in exchange for serving the public interest. As these new multistation owners squeeze every last dime of profit out of their broadcast properties, how is the public served?
According to Rose, if Sen. Hollings is successful in re-regulating broadcast media, "profits will shrink for those owners still standing as cut-throat competition begins for ad dollars."
Perhaps, just perhaps, that might be a good thing. If these media monopolies are forced to adhere to local public interests, consolidated, centralized broadcast stations might not be so appealing as a business. Ownership might then gravitate back to the local owners who have a genuine interest in serving their communities.