Twenty years ago this week

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    Andy Brown

    President Clinton signed into law the Telecommunications Reform Act of 1996. Research indicates that the 1996 Telecommunications Act was one of the most lobbied bills in history. Media interests spent $34 million on campaign contributions for the 1995-96 election cycle – nearly 40% more than the previous election. Since deregulation in 1996, more than a third of all US radio stations have been bought and sold. In the year following the legislation alone, 2045 radio stations were sold – a net value of $13.6 billion. Of the 4992 total stations across 268 set radio markets, almost half are now owned by a company owning three or more stations in the same market. The Future of Music Coalition reported the number of stations owned by the ten largest companies increased by roughly fifteen times between 1985 and 2005. Concentration of corporate ownership in the vast majority of local markets, at the expense of local ownership, has increased dramatically. The Local Ownership Index, created by Future of Music Coalition, shows that the localness of radio ownership has declined from an average of 97.1% to an average of 69.9%, a 28% percent drop.

    In my analysis, it all adds up to more shitty radio then good radio whereas before 1996 there was more good radio then shitty radio. I didn’t say excellent, just good. Group owners owning stations in other markets and adding second service under the duopoly rules were experimenting with cutting edge formats. AM was still a proving ground and not the vast wasteland it is today. Live dominated over automation and syndication both in the ratings and from a pure numbers view of how many are or aren’t locally sourced in real time.

    Whereas the Reform Act of 1996 is largely responsible for much of what is wrong with radio broadcasting today, its successes in non broadcast spectrum and licensee management haven’t given us affordable wireless services but rather quite the contrary, it has resulted in big carriers getting bigger, more ornery to deal with and jacking their rates through the roof. For consumers that means it no success, it is a failure.

    Creative and responsible radio broadcasting still exists, but it is limited to low power delivery with limited ownership (one station per licensee) and the dial is flooded with translators rebroadcasting out of market programming few listeners care about. Why is it that a small Class A FM station back east can have hundreds of satellite fed translators all over the U.S. but a local low power station can only own two translators that have to be in the same area?

    The Reform Act was mostly a big giveaway to the already ginormous players.

    Twenty years of sheer malfeasance. Concentration of radio ownership translates to concentration of radio listenership. The top four group owners received 48% of the listeners in 2005. Yet across 155 markets, radio listenership has declined over the past fourteen years that data is available for, a 22% drop since its peak in 1989. It is plausible that the decline in radio listenership is due to consumers finding alternatives more attractive than homogenized radio.


    Andy. I read your post. And several of your other postings over time. Would have said years. Don’t know if that would be accurate or not. But I agree with the time line. Was not on the forum then. Or had inside information. But I knew it anyway. Radio started sucking about that time. And now I know the real reason why that was. Thank you!


    I remember this well.

    At the time I was traveling around the country, oddly enough building Internet infrastructure.

    I found myself on a flight from Portland to Dulles one Monday morning with Ron Wyden (who was travleing coach btw).

    I had strong feelings about this bill, mostly having to do with consolidation’s effect on media balance.
    (with good reason it turns out)

    I thought “What the Hell, I’m a constituent when will I have another chance like this?” So being in the back of the plane, when he came back to use the facilities, I lined up behind him, introduced myself and let him know my feelings on the matter.

    He politely listened and thanked me.
    (He was probably thinking, “WTF? I can’t even use the can?”)

    Wyden was a member of the House at the time this bill passed having not yet assumed his Senate seat.
    Doing the math, Wyden had already voted in favor this bill in the House by the time I had my conversation with him.
    Pity! I really think I could have turned him!



    During the mid 1990s, I recall reading the lists of new radio stations in Popular Communications. Each issue had a rather long list of new FM stations, mostly Class-As. One of the issues explained that this growth was due to legislation intended to increase minority ownership in the broadcasting industry. Of course, we all know how that turned out. 🙁

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