The Greatest Tragedy Of American Media: How five corporations stole public television and radio

Look around you in America today. You may be feeling angry, confused, and have a hard time separating from what is truth and what is fiction. You may have lost complete confidence in the institutions you once respected and cherished, and better yet you are asking yourself if these feelings are okay. I am here to tell you that these feelings are very real and they are happening. Today I want to talk with you about the greatest tragedy that would ever happen to our free democracy, and it happened to us in the middle of the night while we were all sleeping sound and secure. This kind of tragedy is not the kind we can witness with our eyes or our ears, as its effects are completely invisible and inaudible. Well if something can’t be seen and doesn’t make a sound, did it ever even exist at all. Are you confused yet?

What I’m referring to is the disappearance of our democratic airwaves in the sky, our public radio and television as a cherished and respected institution. In this article I am going to cover over the television industry first, and then in the second part of my story I am going to go over how radio and the music industry has changed over the course of the last two decades. It may shock you but that would not be surprising, as this information has largely gone unreported on the very platforms that now wish to silence dissent. So buckle up for another American history lesson, and allow me to show you what we have lost, and maybe what we can do to get it back for the future generations of America.

History Of Public Television:

Are you frustrated with the amount of bills you have to pay in order to watch your favorite show on television? Are you frustrated with the amount of advertisements you are forced to watch between programming? Television access in America costs more than ever before. It wasn’t always this way though. I’d like to point out a time in history where television was considered a completely different platform. There was once a time when it wasn’t just for paid entertainment. It was the heartbeat of a nation’s culture and identity. It was exposure to our communities. Today we have more stations to choose from than ever before, but have we really increased our choices or are we witnessing the illusion of choice?

Back in the “heyday” of network television, mom or pop could go to the appliance store and purchase a “brand new” color set. Every television set came equipped with “rabbit ears” that provided free no subscription service to America’s heritage of the 1940’s through the 1990’s. It was once common to see local access television shows in small sections of the country where they could be viewed no where else. New York had their own shows, Los Angeles had their own programming, and the same went for Boston and Chicago. Each television station was once independently owned and operated, so we need to look at the history of cable laws in politics and why our current system allows advertisement on cable television. Cable television has been around since the beginning of television history. Along with cable we had satellite which was commercial free. They don’t want you to remember this.

Americans would typically buy what was called a “black box” or “black box television”, and this allowed them to view a greater content of channels. In the beginning these were not illegal and you in fact did not even need to pay for a subscription. There were hundreds of cable providers you could buy at the store, and even an easy way to pick up satellite feed from hundreds of stations around the country and the world. Best of all there was no monthly fee, no forced subscription, and no one to control the content shown.

Example of a subscription free cable box that would be sold electronic stores during the 1970’s.
Page 102 of November 1981 issue of Popular Science showcasing a Downlink c-band backyard dish.

“So today’s systems will soon become obsolete? Not at all. The choice has become to pay a one-time price of about $2500 for access to 500 different channels or be locked into monthly fees with the cable companies. Cooper is betting that most people will choose big backyard dishes.” — Popular Science (Pg. 103, November 1981)

Television in many respects during that time was almost like the wild west internet of today but even better. The content on cable and satellite television for the first fifty years of its life was commercial and subscription free. Anyone could have a television station and broadcast to public satellite. This included networks such as CNN, MSNBC, MTV, CBN, Nickelodeon, ESPN, and Disney Channel. Cable companies like Comcast debut in the 1960’s. The first satellite transmissions in America had their debut in the early 1970’s. It was “free” public airwave access. Picture clarity on analog rabbit ears and satellite were also better towards beginning than near the end of its life, because as you added channels you shrunk the bandwidth and lowered picture and sound fidelity.

The August 1983 issue of Mechanix Illustrated had plans to construct a C-Band satellite dish from scratch. The US government had lifted FCC license requirements for TVRO (TeleVision Receive Only) dishes under the Carter administration on October 18, 1979 by FCC Chairman Charles D. Ferris, making it possible for hobbyists to construct their own receivers. This followed Congress passing Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984, over objections by the broadcasters which made it illegal to encrypt and charge for television which included advertising on those frequency bands. This put Third Report and Order mandated by the FCC in 1972 into law. The only commercials that existed were on broadcast television, and even they were particular if you took a closer look. Whatever happened to the used car salesman commercial, or the commercial from local companies in general? The commercials on television were once overwhelmingly based towards the local viewing audience, but something drastically changed. Lately we are paying more for television and getting more commercials for luxury items that seem completely removed from our own realties.

The reason for this was because before the 21st century, the FCC said that a cable company could not own a network on television. Cable and satellite companies could not be in the business of controlling the content shown on television. In other words they were only providers for the networks which sold hardware, not creative access to content all together.

Front page headline of the New York Times January 15, 1986. (New York Times Archive)

What happened? Well in the 1980’s the Reagan administration started to deregulate the FCC. In 1983 the Equal Time Rule (1927) stopped being enforced, and in 1987 the FCC stopped enforcing the Fairness Doctrine (1949) which included the Zapple Doctrine (1949) requiring network standards to promote both sides to every story. They finally allowed cable companies to scramble their signal in 1986 by repealing the Cable Communications Policy Act (1984) under a Republican majority, a move that very much pleased the National Cable Television Association. This setup the commercial platform for what paid television would eventually become, and created pandemonium when 1.5 million satellites went dark losing Americans what would be worth today ten billion dollars of hardware. No buyers were ever refunded or compensated. This phenomena did not happen in any other developed democracy. In Europe for example, there are still many feeds and FTA channels running into many thousands which can be picked up by any satellite dish as a public right.


“The cable companies have formed a group that will market unscramblers for $395 each and charge, in the case of Home Box Office, more than $20 a month for the unscrambled signal, about twice the monthly charge for cable viewers. Cable offices will now be able to turn off an unscrambler by remote control if a bill is not paid.” — New York Times (Jan. 15, 1986 Section A, Page 1)

The next administration after Bush and Reagan was the Clinton administration, and it can perhaps be said that Clinton was responsible for the largest FCC deregulation ever on the books. In 1996, Bill Clinton passed the “Telecommunications Act Of 1996″. Before 1996, a media company could not own more than 5–8 local stations across the country in a single market. It also lifted the restriction that said, a cable company could not own a network. Today, very few companies like Sinclair control our entire media narrative. This also allowed giant cable companies like Disney, AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast to buy up all of our over the air networks. To the point where there was no difference between over the air and cable anymore. This law also repealed the Prime Time Access Rule (1970) which deserves a whole paragraph on its own to talk about what we gave away.

President Clinton electronically signing Telecom Act into law on February 8th, 1996. (US Archives)

The Telecom Act of 1996 Sowed the Seeds of a Telecom Oligopoly

Big Media Companies And Their Many Brands — In One Chart

FCC Opens Way for Media Conglomerates

The future Republican controlled FCC took it upon themselves to push massive deregulation with a badly written Telecom Act filled with many loopholes. This opened up the door for the cable television buyout. During the Bush administration the FCC administration in 2005 mandated the entire phase out of analog television. They knew it was illegal to force Americans to buy a product, so they provided coupon vouchers for digital tuners working with the two major providers Verizon and Comcast. So Comcast comes to your door to install a “free” digital tuner, and then sales pitches you for an hour about the wonders of subscribing to “high definition” cable. Little does everyone know that you don’t need a cable box to pick up high definition network channels. No one knows how long this will last because they are not obligated to do so, but major networks still broadcast over the airwaves so they can keep their space on the FCC spectrum. You can still buy antennas and pick up close to 20 major networks in high definition. In some areas your choices are more limited, but that is their best kept secret the industry does not want you to know. However the signal for broad Digital broadcast is line-of-sight, and does not like hills, mountains, or other obstructions. Since we switched to digital reception you almost have to pay for something and the strength for broadcast transmissions is only getting weaker.

Here’s How Much Americans Pay for Cable Channels They Don’t Watch

We in fact have more advertisements on television today, because advertisement revenue does not support content anymore. Advertisement revenue is how networks make their revenue by allowing their cable companies to broadcast their station, because networks like ABC and CBS lose millions in ad revenue if a cable company decides not to carry their content. That makes it more lucrative for cable companies to buy up networks, and for cable companies to control the creative content that is being shown. It’s frequently called a “blackout” when networks don’t agree to the terms of the cable companies, and censor you off their platform. The cable company does not lose any money by doing this, because their main revenue comes from subscription fees. It’s the book definition of extortion.

Example of a television converter box coupon handed out by White House in 2005 (US Archive)

CBS Is Blacked Out for 6.5 Million AT&T Customers. Here’s Why.

Things in the future are not looking any brighter. In 2011 the Obama administration outright repealed the Fairness Doctrine from the national registry, after GOP committee members requested to Chairman Julius Genachowski that he “erase” the idea from our memory banks. Prior administrations just chose not to enforce it. Laws recently passed are only strengthening the scrambling of cable not loosening. Big telecom companies are merging, and more increasingly controlling the narrative than ever before. Former FCC Chairman under Ronald Reagan who was known for his free market approach to regulation, even criticized the Obama administration for having a bias towards big telecom cable companies over broadcast television networks by stating that the agency’s bias for broadband overlooks the benefits of broadcast. When the FCC pushed broadcast digitization they made billions on the sale of UHF spectrum to cellular companies. That was one of the main reasons they worked so hard to convert analog to digital and offered coupons for set top converters. If not for the billions of dollars made from the restructuring it would have never been done and we would still have public television.

Ex-FCC chair suggests broadband bias

“Television broadcasters had much of the spectrum that wireless companies wanted. So the FCC has intervened to reassign chunks of spectrum from one group to another, and its broadband bias comes at the expense of broadcasters. Television broadcasters already converted more than 25% of their spectrum to digital in 2009. That wasn’t enough to end the so-called shortage. In 2010, the FCC proposed that broadcasters relinquish an additional 120 MHz of 20 channels to be repurposed for broadband. In 2012, Congress authorized the FCC to reallocate the spectrum through a voluntary auction, with broadcasters sharing in the proceeds.” — Radio & Television Business Report

In 2011, the FCC mandated that all over the air low powered broadcasters vacate channels 52 to 69. This was essentially the end of local access television. Only 23% of the 4,000 licensed local translators received a $1,000 federal-government subsidy to switch over to digital. Many thousands of local channels and content went dark under the Obama administration. Operating on a completely digital spectrum now allowed cable companies who were permitted to purchase broadcast networks to eliminate any alternative to a scrambled signal. It would now be a brave new digital world we would all need to adapt to and there was nothing anyone could do about it. The middle class would now be subject to new fees and subscriptions they would be forced to pay, on a product that in the past was completely free to use. All under the guise of a clearer picture?

“Don’t let it be one sided, don’t let it be out of balance. Fairness Doctrine is a check on those who can dominate the dialog.” — Former FCC Chairman Charles Ferris (March 18th, 1987)

On September 19th, 2019 Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard introduced Restore the Fairness Doctrine Act of 2019 since it was never an official law passed by Congress, in hoping that if passed a future administration would never be allowed to repeal it again. The bill failed to attract enough cosponsors and it died in the House Energy and Commerce Committee in the 116th Congress. It went virtually unreported by television media, the same industry that would have been affected had this been voted on and passed. Proponents say the Fairness Doctrine resulted in more balanced and impartial media outlets, and that eliminating it led to the rise of polarized media outlets which now have license to only broadcast one side if they choose, which in turn has led to a far more polarized country and electorate. The most prominent conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh debuted his national radio show a year after it was taken away in 1988, while the most prominent conservative television network Fox News began less than a decade later in 1996 as did MSNBC.

So you say none of this matters to you, we don’t watch local television stations? Yes you have, and most every show you have watched in history was a local television show before it was picked up by a major network. In the past you would have local television studios in every city in America, where actors would travel to different regions of the country to test run a show before it was broadcast nationwide. Practically every show from Addams Family, Full House, All In The Family, Seinfeld, Tonight Show, Merv Griffin, Ed Sullivan, and even MASH were pitched by local studios and companies before they were recognized by Hollywood and picked up by affiliates across the country. They were called pilots and shown in limited areas. It was even common for network affiliates to air rejected network television shows known as syndications. A more famous example you may know is What’s My Line? which was cancelled by CBS in 1967, but continued until 1975 because enough locals chose to keep it in syndication.

One of the most famous examples of television syndication history was the Tonight Show itself. From 1969 to 1974, and then from 1980 until Carson’s retirement, the Tonight Show was completely produced and syndicated and owned by Johnny Carson himself. He more or less had total creative control over the show in separation from NBC, as the local affiliates would syndicate Johnny’s programming around the country. Perhaps no television figure in that era was more powerful than Carson himself, even more powerful than the corporate overlords at NBC. He was a direct threat to the future of the network’s power and they wanted him out before he could turn it over to Letterman, who also controlled and owned his own syndication through Carson. As we know the story the network chose to go with someone else instead of Letterman while ignoring Carson preference. Leno became the company man and the rights to the Tonight Show were sold back in syndication in 1996 to NBC’s headquarters. Today Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show is solely distributed by NBCUniversal Syndication Studios, a subsidiary of Comcast. Big corporations have historically decided to take less risks, such as using laugh cues and teleprompters, and only following popular trends. Jimmy Fallon himself for example has no creative control over the distribution of syndication of the show.

We don’t see this anymore because there is no longer a buffer between local affiliates and cable companies. We used to break for what was called “station identification” where local programs would be advertised. We no longer do this as we consolidated. In 1996 the Telecommunications Act repealed the Prime Time Access Rule (1970) which encouraged network affiliates to produce their own independent programming, and prevented one network from dominating the dialog. Between 1996 and 2020, Sinclair Broadcast Corporation went from owning 1 station in 1971, to 294 television stations across the United States in 89 markets by the 21st century. In the year 2021 not including territories, six companies owned 146 of the 224; 65% of ABC affiliates, five companies owned 159 of the 224; 75% of CBS affiliates, and seven companies owned 164 of the 218; 75% of NBC affiliates across America. The most ownership diversified parts of the country included Southeast and Southwest stations near Los Angeles. However these regions still showcased a large group of ownership from among the largest seven media companies. The least diversified parts of the country included Midwest, Northwest, and Northeast stations near Boston.

These network affiliations used to be in the hands of local families, and mom and pop small businesses. This does not just have an effect on shows, but this has even greater implication on the news that is shown to Americans which allows us to form educated and factual opinions. In 2021 of the nearly 900 affiliated news stations in the country spanning four networks, less than 14% are owned by organizations that reside in the same state in which they are broadcasting from. This has led to the phenomenon of what is known as “repeat broadcasting”, in which networks simply share the same news reports and stories across hundreds of stations at a time. No wonder Americans are feeling less connected to their communities. A few giant corporations now control the conscious and narrative that is shown on every network affiliate in the country, and this has had dangerous consequences that even many critics of regulation didn’t anticipate.

The Sinclair company headquarters in Maryland, the largest television conglomerate in America.

During the 2008 election cycle, Sinclair Broadcasting forced local news networks to run advertisements during commercial breaks from a GOP SuperPAC which attempted to tie Obama and Hillary Clinton to Weather Underground during the Democratic primaries. In an unprecedented move this led to a Supreme Court case that would be known as Citizens United v. FEC (2008), which repealed the former Supreme Court decision Austin v. Michigan (1990) which allowed restrictions on speech-related spending based on corporate identity. With a cable box set now in every American home, this gave politicians direct access to unlimited spending and advertisement. Not many had realized one ruling on television would have such a large impact on future elections.

Finally in 2014 the Obama administration for the first time removed the Zapple Doctrine (1949) from the law books entirely, after a Clear Channel owned Wisconsin station was sued for refusing to provide free air time for advertising the Democratic nominee for Governor Tom Barrett. This was after they had given free air time to the Scott Walker campaign. Chairman Tom Wheeler came to the conclusion it was no longer enforceable and invalid, since President Obama had repealed the Fairness Doctrine in 2011.

“The agency [FCC] tasked with protecting the public interest in broadcasting has decided that WISN and WTMJ, two publicly-licensed radio stations in Milwaukee, were allowed to give away all the free time they wanted to the supporters of one candidate (in this case, Gov. Walker), without allowing supporters of his Democratic recall opponent (Tom Barrett) any free airtime at all.” — Chairman Tom Wheeler (2014 Resolution Meeting @ Washington DC)

FCC declares “Zapple Doctrine” unenforceable; affirms broadcaster discretion regarding programming content

In consequence, media polarization by the dollar is now not only in legal writing, it is now protected by the Supreme Court to become the law of the land. It can no longer be repealed by a future administration, unless we have a fair and balanced Supreme Court that is not stacked by a supermajority. In 2016 Sinclair ran advertisements to promote Trump campaign hats, which was shown on all four major network affiliates around the country. However this is not just about selling Trump hats, because Sinclair also has the power to manipulate and censor content which is shown on local news stations.

“I don’t think democracy is being strengthened by it. Is it being undermined? Yes. I think that a democracy requires, desperately needs what are widely perceived by people of all politics stripes as objective sources of news. Otherwise it’s too easy to dismiss what is being said by one side or the other, simply because they don’t share your political point of view.” — Ted Koppel

A call for an increase in greater control over the content that was shown on television was pushed by evangelical movement. It started with a reverend in Mississippi by the name of Donald Wildmon who went on to form the National Federation for Decency and Coalition for Better Television which later morphed into the American Family Association. During the late 1970’s he led multiple pressure campaigns that worked by targeting the advertisers on the program to threaten them to pull funding which would directly harm revenue for the network. With a membership of 1400 the first boycott took place in the spring of 1978 and against Sears for sponsoring All In The Family, Charlie’s Angels, and Three’s Company. Sears withdrew sponsorship of the latter two programs. His justification was that we should be showcasing religious programming on television instead, and in an effort to clean up our television from the crude jokes and violence in crime fighting shows came rise to the televangelist movement made possible by repealing the Fairness Doctrine that previously prevented religious programming from being broadcast over the air. Controversies through these groups also involved Married With Children, Nothing Sacred, and Family Ties.

The first nationwide picket in front of Sears stores protesting All In The Family sponsorship in 1978.

Entering into the 1980’s we saw the explosion of Pat Robertson, Jimmy Swagger, and Jim Bakker advocating for spots on prime time and a new wealth of donations to the church started coming in. With an effort to impose the first television censorships laws of its kind which threatened local stations with lawsuits headed by Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, Senator Coburn was later forced to apologize when he criticized NBC for broadcasting Schindler’s List in 1997. These controversies also involved Married With Children, Nothing Sacred, and Family Ties. Do you ever wonder why we no longer see bloody pictures from the battlefield, or why many critics say 60 Minutes isn’t 60 Minutes anymore? Sinclair has the power to pull any content that is going to be broadcast by a network from being fed to satellites. The very thing conservatives under the Reagan administration feared the Fairness Doctrine had the power to do, is now happening by Sinclair Broadcasting Corporation. In 2004, Sinclair pulled an ABC Nightline Report that covered the causalities of the Iraq War.

Sinclair Stations Pull Nightline Iraq Casualties Report

“Sinclair, which owns 62 stations in 39 media markets, will instead air a debate over the merits of war in Iraq on its seven ABC affiliates. Areas served by those stations include St. Louis, Mo.; Columbus, Ohio; Charleston, W.Va.; Springfield, Mass.; and parts of Florida, Alabama and North and South Carolina.” — PBS

The greater ease of censorship is alarming to the point where, you can’t turn on a television set anymore and hear various points of view. Commercial networks are too afraid they will be pulled from syndication and lose advertising revenue if they report or show something controversial. This has no doubt contributed to polarization of political discourse, without a proper frame of reference for what can be considered factual news even if it offends the viewers watching the program. It was the birth of news networks like Fox News, Newsmax, One America, and MSNBC moving farther to the left. If we have no understanding or engagement with our neighbors to form an objective frame of reference, who can we really trust anymore? Have simply lost the ability to logically reason? The ability to disagree with another person but also respect them, because we are no longer hearing the other side in factual news has been damaging. We are watching a mirror pointed directly back at our own thoughts and opinions, because we have the illusion of free choice. Ironically the more channels we increase, the less variety we have. We we only had eight channels to choose from we had greater diversity.

Another argument that is commonly brought up is the non objective news sources which can be found on cables news and internet platforms today is, isn’t it in someways not just a blessing but it really democratizes media as opposed to allowing gatekeepers to say here is the news? That argument is speaking on the basis that media democratization is a good thing.

“If you think the democratization of journalism is a good thing I would disagree with you. You wouldn’t dream of democratizing any of profession. You wouldn’t democratize medicine, you would’t democratize the law, you wouldn’t democratize plumbing or carpenter. You expect a carpenter to have some training in his trade. I expect a journalist to have had some training in his trade. By the democratization of journalism, you make the process available to people who have absolutely no background in trying to present a fair and balanced point of view.“— Ted Koppel

Ted Koppel is factually correct. In the past if you wanted to reach a large audience and have your viewpoints, writing, and journalism known to the world, you had to apply for a job and work for a news agency which was regulated as a right to our public airwaves. Local news stations, national news networks, and local newspapers. In a way it attracted writers and journalists with a great background and talent in journalism. With internet news and even cable news, it’s not legally based on any real talent of journalism or factual reporting, but simply based on the amount of likes or views one can get to read or watch their program. In consequence there is a lot of ineffectual reporting from journalists that simply get great exposure because of the amount of advertising revenue they can accumulate, and a lot of very talented writers and investigators getting no exposure because although what may be factual reporting is not popular. Its turned media and news in the United States into a popularity contest rather than just reporting the news and providing objective facts, and that became ever so alarming as soon as ownership rules were deregulated. It allowed one company that can reach millions of views to report on biased stories, through networks that are under no obligation to remain factual and unbiased. This is very much a problem on the internet and social media as well. A question some could ask would be, would Donald Trump have became President if Twitter did not exist?

“Why do they think that just because you have a Tonight Show that you must deal in serious issues? There’s a danger. It’s a real danger. Once you start that, you start to get that self important feeling that what you say has great import, and you know strangely enough you can use that show as a forum, you could sway people and I don’t think you should as an entertainer.“ — Johnny Carson (1979 60 Minutes Interview W/ Mike Wallace)

Unfortunately traditionalist outlets of journalism like newspapers have been hurt badly by this, since no one goes to the gas station anymore to buy the next issue of the Boston Globe, New York Times, or Washington Post. Online newspapers are forced to compete with views, comments, and likes. Close to fifty years of steady growth in revenue to printed newspapers were wiped out in less than a decade from 2000 to 2010. Instead of working through newspaper stands, gas stations, and convenient stores across America, they are today forced to attract viewers through social media giants that have absolute control over the algorithm which is shown to internet users. In many ways this has enticed newspapers to become less objective. We frequently see op-ed pieces on the front pages of newspapers today. Instead of buying an entire newspaper and reading through, we created click bait culture that is completely dominated by those with the largest wallets to advertise. Luckily the FCC still mandates that if a cable operator decides to broadcast more than 12 channels, they must set aside one third of their channel capacity for local commercial stations, what you typically see broadcasts from local schools and town halls. With the way our media has changed over the last two decades, no one knows how long that will last though. We must also make it clear that there is currently no FCC requirement that forces networks stations to still broadcast over the air. Currently CBS, ABC, and NBC are still available on digital over-the-air broadcasts, only because the network companies must do this in order to keep their space on the spectrum. No one is forcing them to do this though, and it’s very likely that they will eventually abandon the spectrum as the last remaining segment of our population stops using it.

History Of Public Radio

Yes this changed television in a huge way, but the deregulation of our FCC did not only affect what is shown on television, it also had a major affect on how we consume our music and the music industry entirely. The same thing happened to our public radio airwaves. The way the music industry once worked is, you had a local band that was popular in one or two cities in America. A local DJ would attend a local show, or the artist would walk into their local radio station and ask the DJ for a promotion with cash in hand. The DJ would listen and if that DJ liked what he heard, he would play their music on his station. Think of personalities such as Cousin Brucie, Wolfman Jack, Pat St. John, Dan Ingram, Harry Harrison, and Ron Lundy. If the people liked what they heard, you moved up the ladder. It was a form of music democracy, the people not corporations were in control.

Dennis Newhall (at microphone) at the original KZAP, backed by fellow staffers, in a 1972 photo.

Once upon a time you could go to your local shopping mall, buy a radio receiver with antennas and tune into America’s culture without paying a subscription to hear what was coming out of the speaker. It came before television, and it was deemed our public airwaves protected by our FCC.

The disc jokey’s job involved literally playing vinyl live on air they recently bought at the local record store, and broadcasting music free of charge across the nation to anyone who had a receiver. It was considered a piece of free promotion for the artist in exchange for advertisement revenue to the station, or even “payola”. In this form it was truly considered “music democracy” as by the end of the 1960’s there were over 800 independently owned radio stations playing their own playlist and unique sound to their listeners in their local community. It’s where the “folk revival” was born, and how listeners were exposed to a new wave of black music we called “soul”, and a new genre called “fusion” jazz. It was a moment in time when you could walk into the radio station in your community with a copy of single you just recorded at the studio down the street, hand over some cash in an envelope and get some air time. Another common occurrence was the “record of the week”, where they would play four different singles from a local artist that would hand out their 45’s, and the song that got the most requests would be played all the next week. That is single-handedly how every major rock band from the past got their start. It was a homegrown environment that brought a unique sound and music culture to each region of the country you would travel to. You had the “LA Sound”, “San Francisco Rage”, “Greenwhich Folk”, “Seattle Grunge”, “Chicago Jazz”, and “Memphis Soul”.

Why exactly did this happen and why did it take place? In order to see why we have to understand the history of copyright laws. Prior to 1976 a sound recording was not considered copyrightable because it was analog. That’s right. Beatles, Stones, Eagles, and practically any other band you could think of was absolutely within law to reproduce on any medium over the analog airwaves. There was simply no way to control it under the law. I wan to speak about the qualities of analog radio and the AM band. It is a common misbelief that AM radio sounded bad so we switched to digital broadcasts and FM was born, but that is not the case in any historically accurate sense. The same argument that was made about analog television is being made about radio today. It was a perfect wave. In other words it’s a long wave format which can travel for hundreds of miles on a cool night. It isn’t blocked by buildings or bridges or other cars passing by you. A lot of people today may say that that the AM band sounds muddy or like you are talking through a telephone and therefore FM digital radio is a superior format. Actually that would be accurate to say, but a frequency response has nothing to do with any format by itself and let me explain. During mid century America AM stations were still the supreme king for music, and it was not uncommon to find stations that were broadcasting upwards of 30KHz signals. Most stations did their best to ensure audio quality, and car radios in particular were often quite good in the past. A lot of this was due to the use of relatively broad filters.

In 1978 when the copyright laws were finally updated by Congress, the RIAA lobbied legislatures to allow sound recordings to be copyrighted for the first time. With the advent of digital CD’s and recording on digital medium rather than through analog tape, and now gave companies the power to copyright a digital file, because a digital file is technically not an analog sound wave. Thus opening up the cat and mouse game that would be known as copyright infringement on music, where the major labels could now collect revenue on rights to use licensed copies of their product. Almost overnight music venues started taking out “tapers” sections out of concerts, and banned the act of recording live performances and trading tapes. This law would have huge implications going into the digital age as we shifted towards the FM band and opened up a digital wave format instead of analog. Heading into the 1990’s we began to see a huge shift in the way manufactures were told by the FCC to make their radios. In 1990, NRSC-2 was passed which would be the first of a series a limits put on AM stations to broadcast over 10KHz, and also regulation which limited the power at which AM stations could be broadcast so they would not interfere with the FM band. In response radio manufactures seeing music stations abandoning the format went to narrow bandwidths that kills audio above 3 kHz, basically “telephone quality.” At the same time, real estate prices often made it more profitable to sell the land occupied by multiple tower arrays than any projected income from the stations, so many of your favorite stations went dark overnight as people stopped tuning in.

“Ran 10k on all three AM’s I tended for almost nine years for Salem Twin Cities (2001–2010). It’s lousy receivers making AM sound bad. Except for lacking a little bit of the very high end, I’ve heard AM stereo which was otherwise better than FM.” — Scott Tod

After Telecom was passed, we began to see one company in particular buy out every local radio station in the country. In many cases they would buy up the AM spectrum as well and shut down the station. That company is called iHeartMedia, or more commonly known as Clear Channel. Clear Channel quickly grew from owning 40 radio stations in 1996, to their peak of 1225 in 300 cities by the year 2002 and dominating the audience share in 100 of 112 markets. Today there are only 82 independent radio stations left. What does this mean for our music? Almost overnight every radio station in the country no longer had connection to the local music scene where folk and rock & roll and blues were born out of. We went from over 15 genres being played on the radio, to only one. Clear Channel likes to play what sells, so you get your choice of pop music or popular music. You can’t walk into a radio station anymore and ask the Disc Jokey to spin your record. DJ’s no longer control the playlist. They don’t take requests from their audience.

In 2002, the FCC made an agreement with iBiquity the company that designed the current digital radio format “IBOC” being used here in the US. The US is one of the few democracies in the world that uses this digital encoding technology, all other countries use a Non proprietary digital encoding like DAB or DRM. In the US royalties must be paid to iBiquity for every transmitter and every receiver manufactured using their technology. There is nothing superior about IBOC encoding but our FCC was bribed into locking the US into paying this company royalties for years.

In 2003 the RIAA setup Sound Exchange in response to Napster. With power in the hands of only a handful of labels, the recording industry decided to sue their own competition Sirius XM and independent terrestrial radio stations from playing music that was made prior to 1972 that was not protected under the original copyright laws. They lost the case, and Florida’s Supreme Court even ruled that songs published prior to that year were public domain. There was simply no federal standard on “oldies” subgenera. However this shorthanded victory would not last the end of the decade as industry insiders and legislators were anxious to close the loophole.

Florida Supreme Court Rules That Oldies Recordings are Public Domain

In 2018, Congress passed the the Music Modernization Act or MMA, which for the first time added copyright protections for music made before 1972. Now all terrestrial and satellite radio would be forced to pay Sound Exchange for the right to use oldies music, even though radio was once considered a form of advertisement for the artist itself. The labels didn’t see it that way after they were swallowed up by the “big three”.

This also had an effect on local music venues that had to shut down after 1996, because Clear Channel books the vast majority of music venues through iHeartMedia. In order to get your music played on the radio, artists are encouraged to book through them. That’s why we have the iHeartRadio music festival every year. The local rock clubs and folk scene in Greenwich Village and San Fransisco streets, in Laurel Canyon are no longer standing. Some examples are Fillmore East & West, Avalon Ballroom, Studio 54, CBGB, Webster Hall, Max’s Kansas City, Olympia all gone. Commonly referred to as gentrification. Surviving venues sold to banks and venture capitalists, which is why so many venues today have a corporate name after a change of ownership rules.

Not only radio but this had a major effect on record companies as well. Again prior to 1996 music labels were not owned by parent corporations. Throughout the 1990’s there was a major buyout of labels that were struggling to stay afloat economically. Parlophone and Reprise sold to Warner Music Group in 2013. UMG bought Motown in 1988, and Decca, Polydor, Atlantic, MCA, Dot, Fantasy, Mercury, Imperial, Stax and Virgin in 2004 and 2012. Sony bought RCA responsible for acts such as the Guess Who in 1986, and Epic Records in 1988. Sony also bought Dunhill, Buddha, and Mute in 2004, along with EMI in 2011. Herb Alpert’s A&M label responsible for bands like Supertramp, Styx, and Police went defunct in 1999, and Roulette went defunct in 1989. So record labels are not private companies anymore that answer to their musicians, they answer to shareholders on Wall Street. Again this is a great example of media consolidation.

Entrance outside iHeart Radio’s (Clear Channel) offices on Townsend Street in San Francisco

This would have dire consequences. Rock music was literally burned to the ground in 2008, after it was found that UMG bought up every master tape on auction from 12 record companies and shoved them in a warehouse collecting dust. This warehouse eventually burned down in 2008, and UMG kept it a secret from artists for over a decade. It has been known as, “the day the music burned”, and countless lawsuits ensured. We lost masters from the likes of Supertramp, John Denver, BB King, Elton John, Nirvana, and Glen Campbell just to name a few dozen out of hundreds of thousands.

“UMG’s accounting of its losses, detailed in a March 2009 document marked “CONFIDENTIAL,” put the number of “assets destroyed” at 118,230. Randy Aronson considers that estimate low: The real number, he surmises, was “in the 175,000 range.” — New York Times

The Day the Music Burned

Is that what happens when you consolidate power? Can we really trust one giant corporation to look after hundreds of thousands of archives, instead of in the hands of the artist or a small recording studio? That is the difference.

In 1972 George Carlin released a comedy album known as the “7 dirty words”, and FCC literally copied the list verbatim and applied it to television. In 1973 WBAI an FM radio station out of New York decided to rebroadcast the album live on air. In a landmark decision FCC v. Pacifica Foundation (1978), it was ruled in 1978 that the FCC now had legal jurisdiction to enforce censorship. How about those political songs we all grew up to love from CCR’s “Fortunate Son” to “Ohio” by CSN&Y that protested the Vietnam War? Media consolidation in terms of censorship also had an affect on radio as well. New York Times reported in 2003 that many artists avoided making music that was controversial or spoke out against the Iraq War, for fear that their songs would not be played on the radio. They blamed it on a direct result of media conglomeration. A great example of this was that in 2003, Dixie Chicks were banned on Cox Radio and Cumulus stations for saying;

We’re ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas.”

One of the downfalls of large ownership, is the greater ease of terrestrial radio censorship. One corporation has complete control over the narrative. This is one of the main reasons shock-jock Howard Stern left terrestrial radio, along with a giant list of other radio personalties in the early 2000's.

On the radio: Familiar voices disappeared

The monopolistic behavior of Clear Channel eventually caught up with them, when under the leadership of CEO Bob Pittman the company went bankrupt in 2018 and sold close to 400 radio stations. The United States Senate bailed them out through bankruptcy court and allowed the company to reorganize and continue. Today they own a total of 859 radio stations, but they are quickly accumulating more once again. As the few remaining independent radio stations continue to struggle, there is no law that prevents the company from buying up the remaining public airwaves over the next decade.

Now wait a minute. There is another medium that became popular in the 21st century for streaming music and that is the internet. What about that? The internet believe it or not original began as a public airwave that was regulated as a public right through the telephone line as you remember. Unlike like most of Europe and Canada, and Australia, internet access is no longer regulated or treated as a utility. Internet access in many areas has increasingly become controlled by two companies as we continue to auction away more of the spectrum to broadband companies rather than broadcasting companies, and in some areas of the country only one company provides cable and internet access in many rural areas in the form of monopoly power. Remember when the internet was free over the telephone line? In 2007 Comcast was caught by the FCC slowing down the websites of competitors. This led to the Obama administration ruling in favor of Net Neutrality in 2015 as a means to prevent what happened to radio and television from reaching the internet. It lasted all but three years, until FCC Chairman Ajit Pai appointed by the Trump administration repealed net neutrality in 2018, despite 70–80% of both Democrats and Republicans supporting it.

In the modern age of music enjoyment have the freedom to search for any song we want to listen to or watch, and get instant results on searches. We can go on YouTube or Spotify and stream to only one genre for the next decade if we wanted to, and that’s where the problem begins to showcase. Internet streaming has destroyed the publishing industry entirely and not to the benefit of the musicians producing the music or the quality of music getting released. Internet access is controlled by two companies, and in some areas of the country only one company provides cable and internet access. It setup up a terrible environment for musicians as a whole, because it further segmented publishing further away from air wave democracy, and moved it into the hands of large advertisement agencies which are collecting most of the revenue and gain we are seeing from streaming. Where only the music with the most advertisement dollars spent gets pushed on the algorithm. It was called “payola” when bands slipped a ten to their local disc jokey, but was called “way of the future” when internet platforms like Apple, YouTube and Spotify did it. Musicians now had no choice but to give their music away for free in the name of potential exposure, and the labels were less likely to sign you and give you an advance, because you can just self publish onto a streaming service and record your music in your bedroom on a laptop. NPR wrote a great piece on this very subject I have linked below.

The Success Of Streaming Has Been Great For Some, But Is There A Better Way?

I had a physics teacher in college that said to me something I will never forget. He said back when he was in school you had to do a research project by going to the library. They didn’t have computers, so they used the dewey decimal system and you had to manually search through thousands of books. He told me today you can Google any result you want to find instant information about any one topic, and sometimes too much information. However when he was doing research at the library, it wasn’t about the destination it was about the journey. Yes he eventually found the book he was looking for, but in-between that he came across books he would have never discovered otherwise. That is really what the environment of the internet has maybe done. It’s taken away the independent movie theaters or radio station and record stores, where a small band or movie would be discovered just because you were sorting through records or billboards and looking for someone else. You stopped just because an album cover caught your eye on the rack.

A shopper participating on “record store day” at the Dusty Groove in Chicago. (Jordan Avery/Getty)

“This is robbery, this will kill the music industry, you will all be sorry. The record industry are just about to roll over and die, the entire industry is in chaos. Anything you give away for free will come back and f**k you up.” — Gene Simmons

You see there was once a time where in order to discover a song, you had to buy the full album. They were considered “album gems”. That’s how a small rock band would be discovered. You had to go to a record store and search through entire albums, and it gave you the ability to discover new music. Someone would see the name “Jefferson Airplane” or “Grateful Dead” and say, what is that? Maybe I should buy it to find out what’s on the album. We sort of lost that discovery with online instant access. The music industry in consequence has now become who can get the most clicks and likes on the internet, and majority of that revenue is no longer going to the artists themselves. We have a created a bubble where we no longer have free will to sort through albums at a record store, but we are forced to use Google or Apple and their predetermined search results. This resulted in the closure of tens of thousands of music stores in the last two decades across America, which really started the movement “record store day” to save these stores.

The rise in vinyl record sales in the 21st century have really been a movement to push for media independence again. Not only for any perceived analog sound qualities, but also because it forces you to discover full albums. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) could have played a role in preserving this relationship, but they allowed this to happen to recording companies and the music scene. In fact, they promoted the consolidation of recording companies and streaming. This happened to the film industry as well and in consequence no one goes to the theatre anymore. One thing about the streaming companies is they have been a force against copyright extension and providing songs for free public access, and they should be given credit where credit is due in that regard. It is however for their own selfish gain that we all benefit. Is that a good thing? Again you still run into the problem of ownership consolidation. It is estimated that one company Google, controls 90% of the internet search result market. In the year 2020 it is estimated that more than 70% of external links come from websites owned or operated by Google and Facebook. That is the opposite of freedom of choice and a variety of opinion and ideas in regards to culture.

Power concentrated into the hands of so few companies has never been good for freedom or choice, and we see this regularly with giant labels and music artists convincing websites to censor and take down videos for merely featuring more than three seconds of a tune in the background, and to demonetize channels if something is shown that is controversial which takes away a local artist’s ability to make revenue. It’s known as there “take down” system, and many recording labels are trying to push online streaming services to become even more restrictive. We have to understand for what we take for granted today could be gone tomorrow, because unlike the physical world the internet could be shut off at any moment. Overnight a company can decide to ban you and you lose everything, and you can’t do anything to complain or protest because no one else is offering that service. The phenomena is called the “streaming monopoly”, and it’s forcing artists to give away their rights to major labels that only see dollar signs.

My Take / Opinion

So what does this all mean in the greater sense of the word? What it truly means is that American culture may have gone away with the 90’s. If a person does not have a frame of reference of multiple viewpoints and is not exposed to a variety of media, that person simply cannot hold an educated opinion. The means in which to separate fact from fiction are becoming increasingly difficult in an era of media polarization and censorship. In an era where any American can make an account on social media and be bombarded with click bait articles that reinforce their own opinions. In an era where the only standard that matters would be who has the most advertising revenue and who gets the most click and likes on their articles or music.

Public access was once the heartbeat of America. Yes back in the “heyday” of television and radio the picture quality may not have been all too great and the sound may have been muffled, but overall we had greater control over what was shown in our media. We had greater access to factual information that brought us closer to our communities. It was a greater form of democracy. Local owners were willing to take a chance on a new show with a small budget. A small radio station was willing to take a chance on a new rock band. Local newspapers attracted talented local writers and connected communities closer together. From news to the sitcoms on television, the people really have less power today to access factual information about the communities we live in. This has had an affect on all forms of media from television, radio, newspapers, and even the movie industry. Those are not my opinions, those are facts written into law from past administrations.

“Without debate, without criticism, no Administration and no country can succeed — and no republic can survive. That is why the Athenian lawmaker Solon decreed it a crime for any citizen to shrink from controversy. And that is why our press was protected by the First Amendment — the only business in America specifically protected by the Constitution- -not primarily to amuse and entertain, not to emphasize the trivial and the sentimental, not to simply “give the public what it wants” — but to inform, to arouse, to reflect, to state our dangers and our opportunities, to indicate our crises and our choices, to lead, mold, educate and sometimes even anger public opinion. — John F. Kennedy @ American Newspaper Publishers Association (APRIL 27, 1961)

Is it time for the FCC to bring back the standards we had like the Fairness Doctrine and what prevented cable companies from owning television networks, and ownership rules that protected objectivity and media democracy? We have nothing today. The internet and cable news networks increasingly have no standard. It’s merely based on advertisement revenue. All that matters is how many likes and clicks you get, or how many commercials you can fit between a program. There was always that element in journalism somewhat in the past, but at least we had ownership rules in place to protect it from getting out of hand. We have an environment right now where you can get an Alex Jones character that may be totally inaccurate and spreading false news, but because he is the loudest voice in the room he will get the most exposure. The ones with the biggest pocket will dominate the dialogue as said above by FCC Chairman under Jimmy Carter Charles Ferris, and those were prolific words.

If we as a society want to regain our culture and understanding of our communities, we must have a form a public media again. For without an understanding of a factual frame of reference, we as a society cannot be informed to make educated and rational choices. More importantly, we will lose our basic understanding of the reality around us. We will lose connection to our neighborhoods and our friends. We will grow increasingly isolated until rational debate and conversation is no longer possible. That is why it is still so important to donate to your local public broadcasting stations. I truly hope we grow to understand how important free and public access to our media institutions that we take too often for granted really are, and eventually work towards reforming FCC rules so that we can protect journalism for future generations. Perhaps now more than ever we need truth and factual debate in our lives again. We must take back ownership of our public airwaves before it is gone forever. That is the choice we will have to make in our democracy.

Independent writer outside of Boston.