REASON * December 2001
Most radio stations today are boring and homogeneous, chains of clones controlled by an ever-dwindling handful of focus-group-driven corporations.
Their programs are presumably meeting somebody’s needs, and I wish them no ill. I have no desire to drive those two oxymorons, “classic rock” and “young country,” from the air. I can coexist with “easy listening,” with “adult contemporary,” with even that unlistenable concoction called “smooth jazz.” (That’s like calling Scientology “smooth Judaism.”) But what kind of musical desert contains only those brands of broadcasting?
A freer media landscape, shorn of such tight controls, is possible—one that would allow us greater freedom to choose, to create, and to escape.
Freedom to choose simply means more options: more radio formats, more TV channels, more film studios, more publishers. Market forces have already produced much media diversity, and were it not for the barriers erected by the Federal Communications Commission (among others), those forces would produce much more. Radio, in particular, is already very diverse, with more than 11,000 AM and FM stations in the United States and dozens of formats for listeners to choose from. But for the most part, this is diversity without depth: an ether carved into a thousand niches, each only an inch deep.
Consider the state of country radio. Country is now the most popular format in the United States, with more than 2,600 stations devoted to it.
The most popular brand of country broadcasting is “young” country—that is, country divorced from its past. One typical station’s TV commercials alternate grainy, black-and-white films of old folks square-dancing and playing hillbilly instruments (words on screen: “old country”) with color footage of groups that look like rock bands (words on screen: “young country”). Yet most country stations won’t play much traditional country music. In some towns, you’re more likely to hear Merle Haggard or Johnny Cash on a punk-flavored college station than on the frequency theoretically devoted to country and western. And so country radio rules, but great reservoirs of excellent country music—new as well as old—are ignored or forgotten.
Freedom to create means more than that: not just the right to choose among 500 TV stations instead of three, but fewer barriers to setting up a station of your own; not just greater ease in joining the officially licensed elite, but the right to operate outside it.
Like the freedom to choose, the freedom to create is being withheld by an alliance of policymakers and professionals. The technical cost of starting a station has been within most Americans’ reach for years. The legal cost, however, is much higher: thousands of dollars to purchase an existing license, thousands more to cross various regulatory hurdles. With very few exceptions, the FCC won’t even issue licenses to noncommercial stations of less than 100 watts. Class A commercial stations require at least 6,000 watts of power.
Small wonder that so many people in the ’90s chose to start their own micro radio stations—low-budget, low-power, locally focused outlets—without the sanction of the FCC.
Freedom to escape means being able to go beyond the conventional means of mediation and to interact more directly, more convivially, with others. It’s not far from what the novelist Andrew Nelson Lytle had in mind when, in the ’30s, he instructed his fellow Southerners to “throw out the radio and take down the fiddle from the wall.” There have been times when doing free radio has meant evading the electromagnetic spectrum altogether, as with the Jamaican soundtracks that played music beloved in the island’s poor communities but absent from the official airwaves; or the street DJs who invented hip-hop, mixing disks with a ferocious eclecticism that would have shocked even the most experimental freeform disc jockey of the hippie days.
Micro radio lets us speak for ourselves, lets us keep our radios on and take down those fiddles from the wall. By blurring the boundaries between mass media and face-to-face interaction, it puts the former at the disposal of the latter. A micro station based in a particular community—a housing project, a rural village, a bar, a church, a group of friends—isn’t just a signal a solitary listener might catch on his stereo. It’s a rallying point, a reason for people to gather both on and off the air.
In the early days of Steal This Radio, a pirate station in New York City, the broadcasters constantly moved from one location to another—” solemnly vigilant,” an organizer later wrote, “against FCC detection.” Solemnly might not be the best word for the station. “Our weekly broadcasts quickly became the best floating party on the Lower East Side, and as thirty or forty people would inevitably arrive at every broadcast location, we often asked ourselves if anyone was home listening to the show.”
And if they weren’t, would it matter?
Jesse Walker (email@example.com) is an associate editor of REASON and author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America (NYU Press), from which this article was adapted.