The Communications Act of 1934 was one of the most important
pieces of legislation ever passed by Congress. It established the reality that we the
people own the airwaves and those who broadcast over them merely possess
a license to use them. No one who holds a broadcast license is
expected to make money. If they do, fine; if not, hey; it's not our problem.
return, licensees have to agree to
broadcast programming and information “in the public interest.” In other words,
in order to use the public airwaves, they agree to
make time available for the public to broadcast messages that may only be of
interest to a small segment of the public. In other words, the airwaves are
supposed to represent all of the people, not just those with the most cash.
They are our airwaves for a very good reason; a “national
security” reason, actually. If there is an emergency, the airwaves are our main
lines of communication, folks. When something bad happens or is about to,
people need to be able to turn to their radios or their televisions and find
out what’s going on. When the power goes out, you can’t turn on your cable tv and
your Internet may not work. But authorities can always get information out over
AM and FM radio. Broadcast television is somewhat less reliable for information
than radio, but there are portable battery powered televisions out there and
sometimes visual evidence of a catastrophe has a greater impact on folks than
audio evidence, so it’s just as important.
Well, due to our fascination with lottery capitalism, we
are dangerously close to losing our broadcast industry. Truly moronic corporate
whores thought they could become rich by monopolizing the industry, their
attempt failed miserably and now they’ve put our broadcast airwaves at risk by
strangling the life out of it. And with the various corporate-whore-friendly
modifications to the Communications Act passed by Congress in recent years, our
own government sold us out and let them do so.
Clear Channel is the instigator, and they boast some
of the most moronic executives in corporate history. Before they entered the radio
business, their main businesses were billboards and concert promotion. So, of course, someone at Clear Channel
thought it logical to buy up as many radio stations as possible, because
the radio business was complimentary to their other businesses, right? Think
about it; if you’re in the concert business, what better way to sell concert
tickets than to play the hell out of the artist on your radio stations. And if
you own all radio stations and billboards, and a business wants to advertise
using one of those media, they’ll have to come to you and you can charge
whatever you want, right? That has some sort of “logic” to it. Doesn’t it?
Well, doesn’t it?
Let me end the suspense. No, it doesn’t make sense, and it’s
not logical. It would be like buying up every paper mill in the country so that
anyone who wanted to post flyers had to go through me. It sounds like a great
idea in the lottery capitalist mentality, but it doesn’t take into account the
initial cost of buying the paper mills in the first place, and it assumes that
people need paper more than life itself, and can’t discover an
So, in chasing this windmill, Clear Channel just bought up
every radio station or group of radio stations they could find and in the
process overpaid by as much as a factor of five for many of them. In other
words, they were paying $1 million for stations worth no more than $200,000,
and did so repeatedly. Another handful of companies, eager to “compete” with
Clear Channel (although I’m not sure they knew why), also purchased a boatload
of radio station licenses for a lot more than they were worth.
Well, because they realized they screwed up royally and lost
the lottery, the conglomerates then went out and overpaid for every programming
provider they could get their hands on. As a result, not only do a small
handful of conglomerates control most commercial radio station licenses in the
country, but they control almost all of the programming on those stations as
well. Rush Limbaugh’s program is owned by Clear Channel. Thom Hartmann’s
program is owned by a company that only provides programming and doesn't also own stations. Can you
guess why Limbaugh’s on 600 stations, and Hartmann isn’t?
Have you scanned your radio dial recently? I have. I
recently drove across the country, from Arizona to the Eastern Shore of
Maryland. Mostly, I listened to my iPod, but when you drive 12 hours a day,
sometimes you want to hear what’s going on in the world. Only, it’s become more
difficult to find news or information on the radio anymore. Most stations don’t
run any news at all, and the few that still do are limited to six minutes at
the top of every hour. Actually, that’s not accurate; three of those minutes
are commercials. The weather report is usually hours old and only consists of
current temperature and sky condition.
All programming everywhere is the same, because most
programming is syndicated. They even have syndicated robotic music formats,
which they name “Jack” or “Bob” or “Fred” or some nonsense, playing the same 300
or so songs constantly. At one point during my drive I counted six stations
carrying Rush Limbaugh at exactly the same time in exactly the same location, just outside a fairly large city. Advertisers, I ask you; is
that what you’re paying for? How many sets of ears do most people have? If you
think having your advertisement on six stations at the same time carrying the
same program is an ideal allocation of your advertising dollars, then you’re exactly the suckers the lottery capitalists are looking for. Can I offer you 500 shares of pets.com?
And if you think I’m harsh in calling these people idiots
(some of you apparently hate when I do this), think about this. Citadel is in
bankruptcy. Clear Channel has been teetering toward that direction for several years,
and they’ve had to sell off a few hundred stations just to stay afloat. CBS
Radio has been trying desperately to cut its costs so that they can find a
buyer who’ll pay them something remotely resembling the price they overpaid for
the stations years ago. These companies are not making money, the radio
audience is shrinking, and advertisers are pulling their dollars out of radio.
How smart do you think they sound?
The situation is almost as dire when it comes to broadcast
television. In recent years there has been increasing talk about broadcast
networks ditching broadcast signals altogether and sticking to a cable-only
model. The reason for this, of course, is that a small number of conglomerates
have bought up as many television broadcast licenses as possible and overpaid
for them and they’re trying to screw us to get their money back. They’ve
figured out they can make us pay ever-higher cable tv bills to augment their
Rupert Murdoch recently stated that he thinks he can make
more money charging cable companies per-subscriber and then running half an
hour of ads every hour than he can make running shows on broadcast television.
He cites the high cost of programming production as the culprit. He seems to
forget that most network shows only air once or twice on broadcast television
in the first place, before making even more money in endless reruns on cable,
not to mention DVD sales, download rentals, etc. Of course, old Rupert loses
more money than anyone else in media, so he’s not exactly the brightest bulb in
Basically, the attitude of these media companies is, screw
the public; if they can’t make a guaranteed zillion dollars on everything they
broadcast, they shouldn’t broadcast anything. That’s unacceptable. This is the equivalent of Wal-Mart moving into a rural town,
laying waste to every business in the town, and then pulling out, claiming they
can’t make enough money. The lottery capitalism mentality allowed that to happen as well.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t give a shit whether or not
these companies make money on television and radio. If they can’t make
money with a broadcast license, they should surrender it to someone who can. The
entire industry was built on local signals and local programming, and it’s only
been since the lottery capitalists took over that it’s become completely messed
up. How in the hell did William Paley make so much money for so many years
without charging the public for programming? How did we survive for so many
years with just five channels of programming? Why were broadcasters able to
make so much money providing local programming on nothing but ad revenue for
the better part of a century?
The answer is simple; lottery capitalism lays waste to
everything it touches. It’s a simple concept, really; the larger a company
gets, the less your dollars matter to it. Larger companies will always be less
efficient, and always produce an inferior product, because that’s just the
nature of the beast. Surely, you can tell a difference between a company like
Ikea, Nordstrom or Saks, who are very careful with their expansion, and one
like Wal-Mart or Target. If you’re not sure what I mean, ask a random associate
with each store about a random product in that store, and note the difference
The same business principles hold true with broadcasting. Local
broadcasters used to be a part of the community, and they took pride in what
they accomplished. Now, most stations are owned by dribbling idiots, who don’t
give a shit about your community; the only thing they look at is their bottom
And once more; these people are phenomenally dense. They
would have to be to think they could make money by treating hundreds of radio
stations the same. I was actually listening to a radio executive a month or two
ago as he tried to explain why he changed the format of a radio station in a
large city on the East Coast. In the last ten years, this same frequency (a
fairly powerful FM station) has had at least four distinctly different formats.
He actually cited “competition from other media” as a major problem in the
radio industry. Two of the “other media” he cited was the Internet and the
iPod. How stupid is that?
The iPod is not “competition,” any more than a record
collection was “competition” thirty years ago. The Internet might be
competition in the future, but right now it really isn’t. Radio is unique. You
can listen to anything you want in real time from almost anywhere at any time.
I used to count on the radio to find music to buy to play on my stereo. Now, I
use the Internet to find music to out on my iPod. I would like to use the radio,
but radio conglomerates won’t play music until it’s already popular these days;
a situation that could end up creating a hole in the space-time continuum. Used properly, radios and iPods are
complimentary, not in competition with each other. But the conglomerates can’t see
The huge radio conglomerates will never make their money
back, because they know nothing about radio. And the more they continue to try
to rationalize their irrationality, the more they compromise the integrity of
the broadcast system. The problem is, we need the broadcast industry. When a train derails in the middle of the
night, and leaks chemicals, a siren waking everyone up is not enough; people
need to be able to turn on their radios and televisions and find out what they
should do to keep themselves safe. When a hurricane is bearing down on the Gulf
coast, people have to be able to rely on broadcast stations to tell them where
they can go. And on another level, if I don’t want to pay $100 a month for
cable television, I should have a free alternative available to me on MY
The Congressmen who created the Telecommunications Act of
1934 saw the value in the broadcast industry, and that value has no waned. But
it’s been compromised by lottery capitalists. It’s time to force these
companies to divest and make broadcasting to local again.
Tomorrow, I'll continue this series with a discussion of banks and financial institutions, with an emphasis on predatory lending. If you have a comment on any of these columns, please leave one. You don't even have to agree with me; just keep it civil.