We Need REAL Public Radio
by Ralph Nader

Ever wonder why radio generally has become so canned, flat and insipid, bereft of local news, and stuffed with commercials, mercantile values, and the same old, tired junk? Not to mention the downright offensiveness of Howard Stern and the other shock jocks? First, for years, more than 90 percent of all radio time is composed of entertainment (music) and advertisements. Second, in the last three years, diversity in radio-station ownership has been collapsing.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 raised the number of radio stations that any single corporation may own in a particular market. This loosed a flood of radio-company mergers. So, not only is station ownership concentrated in fewer corporate hands, but formulaic programming puts the few reporters left, and local coverage, in the backseat as well.

Two conglomerates own more than 400 radio stations each, all over the country. One woman complained about the sameness of Cleveland radio following two huge radio-company mergers: "It's as though McDonald's bought every restaurant in town, and all you could get was a Big Mac."

The purpose of these corporate-radio megaconglomerates is to maximize profits by reducing costs of reporters and editors not to enrich public discourse or cover the news in their areas. Market forces have not led to a vigorous radio culture, or thoughtful programming, or programming that gives voice to the community. In their quest for larger audiences, more advertising, and greater profits, commercial broadcasters cater to the basest standards, with ever more blatant effusions of crassness, sex talk, and nihilism.

Commercial rewards drive the creation, production, and marketing of ever more Howard Sterns, Greasemans, and the rest of the shock jocks. This inevitably leads to a coarsening of our culture, which has particularly harmful effects on children. Even "public" radio is becoming commercialized. National Public Radio now carries ever longer "underwriting messages" which are a form of advertisement.

Meanwhile, the public is mostly silent on the airwaves that we legally own. Radio is supposed to serve the ends and purposes of the First Amendment. That means protecting public discourse, which is essential to our form of democratic self-government. But the current regulatory regime for radio serves to thwart the First Amendment rights and the interests of most Americans. We speak little, if at all, on our own airwaves, while the wealthy may speak through radio by controlling who uses their stations and for what purposes.

What good is freedom of speech if nobody can afford it? Is speech truly free if only the wealthy can buy it?

Here's the good news: At last, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) may come to the rescue. Right now the FCC is considering whether to set up noncommercial, low-power FM (LPFM) radio stations of up to 100 watts, with a range of a few miles. That's a big deal. Imagine the new voices that could flourish on these microstations service and advocacy groups, universities, community and civic organizations, ethnic groups, arts organizations, seniors groups, and others.

They could really liven up the radio dial. They could give us some choices. But it is not enough merely to authorize LPFM service. The FCC should allocate more spectrum for low-power radio broadcasting and introduce it when radio switches from analog to digital signals.

These small stations could enrich the public's understanding of civic issues and social problems. They could be a modest but important step toward more cohesive communities, a renewed public discourse, and a richer and more realistic culture. It is not often that a federal agency can achieve so much with so little effort.

Americans are drowning in a sea of commercialism. Americans are immersed in advertisements, junk mail, junk faxes, TV and radio ads, telemarketing, and billboards. There are ads in schools, beach sand, airport lounges, doctors' offices, hospitals, convenience stores, floors of supermarkets, toilet stalls, on the Internet, and countless other places.

Advertisers even tried, unsuccessfully, to put ads in space and on postage stamps. Tom Vanderbilt, author of The Sneaker Book, writes of advertisers' efforts to "hang a jingle in front of America's every waking moment."

Three cheers for the Microradio Empowerment Coalition, a coalition of microradio stations, community and civic groups, organizations, and individuals that is working to make noncommercial LPFM radio a reality.

There is a profound need in America today for public spaces in which people can talk to one another. We don't need more advertising talking at us. Can't we have just a few spaces niches really that are free from advertising? Sanctuaries, in effect. Is that too much to ask?

The FCC ought to use its authority to establish noncommercial LPFM stations to build a stronger democracy in America and to serve a vision grander than the profit-driven trivialization that largely characterizes the broadcasting and advertising. The FCC was not intended to merely protect the speech rights of broadcasters, advertisers, and the wealthy. It ought to uphold and protect the public's First Amendment interests in radio, to rededicate radio to the service of democracy in America. Noncommercial LPFM radio is one modest step toward that goal.

July 14, 1999

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