The FCC's newest member, Jonathan Adelstein, began the new year by making his first public speech as a commissioner. Skipping the bureaucratic niceties, the new man in town cut to the chase-letting his audience know he's playing a different soundtrack than the recent "market-driven" rhetoric of chairman Michael Powell.
Adelstein's first audience: a group of professional musicians. The title of his speech: "The Last DJ?: Finding a Voice on Media Ownership." The venue: The Future of Music Coalition Policy Summit on Jan. 6 at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
Adelstein warmed up by playing his harmonica with Lester Chambers and his band. He's an "accomplished musician," says his FCC staff, who informed us that Adelstein also plays flute, drums and the Cajun Squeezebox.
"I am not sure that I am the first FCC commissioner who plays rock n' roll, but I hope I am not the last," said Adelstein. That's important, he suggested, because the issues now before the FCC will affect the lives of musicians and "our whole country will fare better if musicians and other artists are heard in these debates."
Firmly planting himself on the side of helping artists use new communications technologies to "bring their creative message to millions of people all over the world," Adelstein told the working musicians he's very aware of "your concern that corporate or government restrictions may limit artists' ability to distribute their products and to receive fair compensation for their use."
Noting that any changes the FCC makes to media ownership rules could "massively and irreversibly change the media landscape," Adelstein warned that the proposed changes supported by Powell "will affect all of us as viewers and listeners." The FCC must proceed very cautiously, he urged, "because if we permit further media consolidation and it turns out to be a mistake, we will find it difficult, if not impossible, to put the toothpaste back in the tube."
As a music lover, Adelstein lamented the rapid consolidation of commercial radio and used it as an example of where all electronic media businesses-including television broadcasting-are headed.
He noted that in 1996, the two largest radio group owners consisted of fewer than 65 radio stations. Six years later, the largest radio group owns about 1,200 radio stations. The second largest group owns about 250 stations. "Their influence is even larger than their numbers suggest, because they are concentrated in the largest markets in the country," he said.
A risk of radio consolidation to the public interest, said Adelstein, is the loss of localism, "a core value at the foundation of the American system of broadcasting." That also often leads, he said, to the "homogenization" of programming.
"We must ask ourselves: At what point does consolidation come at the cost of the local expression that makes radio so unique and so special in this country? At what point does allowing consolidation undermine the public interest-and the quality of what we hear on the radio?" he asked.
"We also must consider how consolidation affects all of you as artists. Years ago, as a new artist, you might have gotten your first airplay on your local station-in a town where the DJ heard you at a local club the night before and wanted everyone else to hear you as well. As national groups buy out more local stations, that town may no longer have a local DJ at all."
CANARY IN THE MINE
Adelstein said the relaxation of rules on radio in 1996 has been the canary in the mine, testing whether it is safe to go in before miners dare to enter. The miners in this case are all the consumers affected by FCC rules that govern ownership of television, radio, cable and newspapers.
"The FCC better carefully consider the health of that canary before we proceed further, because changes to the FCC's media ownership rules potentially could alter the media landscape as much or more than the 1996 actions by Congress changed the radio industry," he said.
A diversity of viewpoints has always been a critical goal of the FCC's media ownership rules, Adelstein noted. "The FCC has historically achieved it by ensuring that no single company can dominate the public discourse in any given town or nationwide. Viewpoint diversity remains critical, because it is the new ideas, the new content, and the airing of news and public affairs that fuel our culture and that are at the heart of our democracy."
Even with the Powell-led juggernaut toward major changes in ownership rules, Adelstein told the musicians that "it is important for you to realize that the game is not over on this issue." He urged all artists and performers to get involved, suggesting that "the outcome depends on it."
Noting that musicians know well how to use a PA system to be heard, he urged them to make noise in the ownership debate. "In order to ensure there continues to be a range of voices heard over the airwaves and through all the media, we need to continue to hear your voices loud and clear. So turn it up!"
Michael Powell he is not.
Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.
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