Somehow, I don’t even know when it happened, but the airwaves were taken from the citizens of this country and placed into the control of the government. But I do know when the government gave that control of the air to private corporations.
President Bill Clinton, who said that “the purpose of government is to rein in the rights of the people” and “we can’t be so fixated on our desire to preserve the rights of ordinary Americans”, signed the Federal Telecommunications Act into law in 1996. This law dramatically relaxed media ownership laws, allowing large companies to begin gobbling up independent media outlets in a creepy, cannibalistic feeding orgy, the result of which is that, here in the Philadelphia area, thirty commercial radio stations are run by only five corporations.
The worst of these corporations is Clear Channel, a corporate monster that owes its entire existence to the 1996 deregulation. It now owns more than 1,200 radio stations nationwide, five times as many as CBS or ABC. In addition, it owns or exclusively books thousands of venues, giving it an unfair monopoly over the entertainment industry. In our area, Clear Channel controls everything from The Tweeter Center to the TLA. And it uses this monopolistic influence to affect what bands you hear, and what bands you see.
After 9-11, Clear Channel, which owns seven stations in our area, blacklisted dozens of songs from airplay on any of its stations nationwide because of their “questionable” content. Among the subversive songs we were no longer supposed to hear: John Lennon’s peace classic, “Imagine”; Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and The Bangles’ “Walk Like An Egyptian”.
Clear Channel has also been accused of strong-arm tactics against record labels, forcing them into exclusively booking their venues by threatening to pull music from rotation on their stations, according to lawsuits filed against them by Cincinnati and Denver, among other cities. In other words, if a band plays in a venue that doesn’t belong to Clear Channel, that band loses airplay on more than a thousand stations nationwide, and won’t be heard on more than sixty percent of America’s rock stations.
For those of us who are music fans, we’re stuck in the middle. The only bands we can hear on the radio are the ones the Recording Industry Association of America (the RIAA) is letting us hear. And, with most of the venues controlled by the radio stations, those may also be the only bands we get to see.
Ask yourself, when was the last time you heard a song on commercial radio that wasn’t from the RIAA? The “Most Played” list on one area commercial website lists 31 artists who were on heavy rotation for the week. Every single song on the list comes from the RIAA.
For years, the only radio station in the area I’d listen to was WDRE, 103.9 on the FM dial. Owned by a small company, WDRE played many bands other stations wouldn’t touch. Among them was the punk band Bad Religion, which, because of its criticism of government and organized religion, has been blacklisted by the majority of radio stations, and even by the retail “mall punk” chain Hot Topic.
Shortly after Clinton signed the 1996 Telecom Act into law, WDRE was bought up by Radio One, which soon thereafter also purchased another rock station, Y-100, and still owns both. Only a few things from the old WDRE, including “sonic sessions” and DJ Preston Elliot, survived to continue on Y-100, but the anti-establishment air of “we’ll play what people want to hear” was gone. WDRE is now WPHI, and both it and Y100 have become top 20 stations, albeit in different genres.
You can help change this by supporting bands and labels who aren’t affiliated with the RIAA. Don’t give your money to labels like Virgin or Geffen, give it to labels like Epitaph, Barsuk, or Sub Pop. Trust me, whatever top 20 bands you like, there are a thousand more out there on small labels that you’ll love. And when you find a band you really like, spread the word. Tell people about them, and request them on the radio. Radio stations won’t play it right away, but if enough people bug them, you never know what might happen.