A few years a ago I ran into former FCC Chairman Michael Powell as he was leaving Jesse Jackson’s Wall Street Project conference in New York. He was the man of the hour due to the fact that over 3 million people had hit up the FCC demanding that he abandon his plans to allow big media conglomerates like Clear Channel to further consolidate.
I confronted Powell about many of the complaints I was hearing from media reform activists around the country including the Bay Area’s People Station Campaign, Detroit’s Black Out Friday campaign and the ‘Turn off the Radio Campaign’ which drew 1500 people including Chuck D, Afrika Bambattaa, Doug E fresh and numerous other rap stars and launched in a Harlem church the night before.
It was there that members of NY’s City Council held a tribunal and listened to over six hours of testimony where person after person complained about lack of musical diversity resulting in listeners having to endure the same ten songs in row, the lack of local airplay for independent local artists and an abundance of harmful stereotypes being broadcasted everyday resulting in Black and Brown communities being marginalized. The most troubling was the management of NY’s then number one station Hot 97 allowing their on disc jockeys to constantly use the N and B words on the air.
Powell listened and then dismissively told me the solution was not to regulate radio and prevent further consolidation but for concerned listeners to turn to the Internet radio. It was there he stated that people could find all the diversity and niche programming their heart desired. I tried to explain that a lot of people especially in poor communities where broadband was scarce, couldn’t listen to Internet radio. Sadly Powell wasn’t trying to hear it and he bounced.
Fast forward 4 years later and people faced with little changes in radio found their way onto the Internet and an industry that once boasted a scant few million listeners a month now has mushroomed to a medium that attracts over 70 million people. Apparently people got Powell’s memo.
In a cruel sense of irony, what has become a viable alternative and a place of solace for many is threatened. In recent weeks while the country was focused on Don Imus, the major record labels along with their organization Sound Exchange successfully petitioned the US Copyright Board and convinced them to increase royalty fees a whooping 300-1200% to be applied retroactively. The rates which were supposed to kick in May 15th threatened to bankrupt the Internet Radio industry.