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Opinion: And the Trumpets Blow Retreat

Radio programmers whimpering for sympathy as they try to defend their programming practices shouldn't look here.

‘Leadership’ would have been saying three years ago, ‘You know, Copps, you’ve got a point. Things have gotten out of hand on the airwaves lately.’

Radio programmers whimpering for sympathy as they try to defend their programming practices shouldn’t look here.

The winter just past was one of the darkest seasons of radio’s discontent. The industry was socked by a blizzard of bad news.

The cold weather was of radio’s own making.

‘Taking the lead’

“NAB believes that voluntary industry initiatives are far preferable to government regulation when dealing with programming issues,” says Eddie Fritts.

If the FCC simply would tell broadcasters what is indecent, says Mel Karmazin of Infinity, stations would be less inclined to offend.

“Clear Channel is serious about helping address the rising tide of indecency on the airwaves,” says Mark Mays, president and COO.

“Clear Channel Communications is taking the lead in fighting indecency over the airwaves,” says a company PR person.

Forgive me while I hack up a hairball.

This isn’t leadership, it’s running for your life.

Localism boards? Zero tolerance for indecency? Responsibility to the listeners?

Leadership would have been talking these things three, five, 10 years ago. Leadership would have been saying, “You know, Copps, you’ve got a point, things have gotten out of hand on the airwaves lately.” Or at least, “You know, Copps, we think you and others with your mindset just might have sufficient influence to do something really nasty to us if we keep ignoring what we’ve been broadcasting on the airwaves.”

Leadership would be firing the guys who castrate animals on the air or solicit couples to have sex in a church or foul the airwaves with “entertainment” that any 12-year-old could tell you is bad stuff. Leadership would be blowing out that air “talent” when it happens, not only after the complaints pour in, and certainly not three or four years after the fact.

Leadership would have been calling a “voluntary” industry summit before the anger on Capitol Hill and among the public reached critical mass – before every major-market radio executive rushed to install thousands of dollars’ worth of profanity delays, and programmers sifted worriedly through records of old listener complaints dating from the last millennium, and everyone seriously wondered if maybe, just maybe, the federal government might actually revoke a broadcast license one of these days.

This is not an industry that is leading. This is an industry in full-blown, tail-between-its-legs retreat, led by the moguls of post-consolidation modern media and a finger-in-the-political-wind FCC chairman.

Thanks, guys.


“Oh, sure, Paul, pile on now,” you say. “Hindsight is perfect.”

But this isn’t hindsight. Any reader of Radio World has seen dozens upon dozens of letters and commentaries in these pages over the past decade from disillusioned industry people – folks who love radio, or love what it used to be – wondering what the heck happened. While most of them express generalized frustration with the effects of consolidation, many also carry a strong thread of criticism for programming gone awry.

I personally have been put off by what I hear on the radio, too many times to count.

Not long ago, I recall sitting behind the wheel of my car and tuning around the band with a rising sense of frustration, bumping from the latest raunchy comedy team to a graphic sex talk show to an endless block of screaming commercials to some other piece of mean-spirited “entertainment.”

In such situations I usually exercise my right simply to tune away to a news or classical station. But always, when I do, I find myself thinking, “What is our industry becoming?” And “How many other people who don’t work in my industry are offended by what I just heard?” and “Should I as an industry journalist defend these programming choices?” And “Where does a broadcaster’s right to speech end and the public’s right to influence our airwaves take precedence?”

I don’t want to come out in favor of programming restrictions. I do not want to. Yet I’m angry as can be at the industry leaders who have brought us to this point, where people who favor soaring fines and 30-minute content delays can make a solid case for their arguments.

Core questions

Ultimately this all comes down to a core question about who owns the airwaves and what radio’s purpose is. My suspicion is that big radio owners too often forget that their station licenses are not immutable.

A.J. Liebling said freedom of the press belongs to the man who owns one. By that argument, the owners of radio stations should be free to program as they choose.

But who owns our “press”? Licensees own equipment, they own brands. They do not own the channel on which they broadcast. That belongs to you and me.

Many times in my career in radio – even when our economy was strong, and radio sales were jumping, and people were less worried about whether they’d have a job the next year – many times, I have found myself troubled by a suspicion that when big broadcast executives talk about their airwaves, they really do mean their airwaves. They think of themselves as business people who should be allowed to compete on an equal footing with the owners of billboards, newspapers, cable TV outlets and movie theaters and be similarly free to make choices.

This point of view is reflected in the words of Lowry Mays, a man who never forgets his mission as an advertising conduit:

“Clear Channel is in the business of selling Fords, burgers and toothpaste,” he has been quoted as saying. Listeners are “important, but indirectly.”

Groan. No wonder his company’s image-makers finally started putting John Hogan out front instead.

The man isn’t wrong; radio is about advertising, and it wouldn’t exist if profit-seeking businesses hadn’t pushed for it in the first place. But let us also never forget that radio stations are authorized to do what they do – and are protected from unlimited direct competition in their medium – because they are part of a compact with the nation through its regulators.

As the FCC states on its Web site, “Whenever we look at an application – whether to build, modify, renew or sell a station – we must determine if granting it would serve the public interest.”

In other words, a radio station is more than just a license to print money.

Many stations do a superb job at serving. They perform the serious spade work in the ditches of localism, and they make a difference in their communities. I worked at one at Delmarva Broadcasting’s WDEL(AM) in Wilmington, Del., in the 1980s, and I listen to another at Bonneville’s WTOP(AM-FM) in Washington today. The upcoming NAB Crystal Awards will salute numerous others.

The problem is that good work of stations like these is obscured by men and women who have laughed off the idea of localism and decency as naïve and anachronistic. The good is drowned out by the bad done by a few who should have known better

And that’s my argument: they should have known better. It’s downright stupid to find our industry worried about huge fines and license revocations and our image with national advertisers because of such patently offensive content and because some programmers forgot that they literally hold their station’s license in their hands every day.

I’m a journalist. I want every person to have the freedom to speak as he or she sees fit. But I’m also a member of society. I understand that what we say and how we say it must be tempered by where we say it and when.

Radio station licensees are given a great gift. It’s a pity that some value the gift so little. Now I worry that the lessons learned during this debacle will be fleeting.