Loss of Local Radio Voices Subtly Diminishes Democracy

Loss of local radio voices subtly diminishes democracy

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Losing Rocky D, Tessa and Baby J ... and what else?

A good many people believe the government should back off and let market forces determine the shape and substance of our culture. Some of these same people may have been surprised and disappointed last week to discover the sudden disappearance of local on-air radio personalities Rocky D (WTMA-AM 1250), Tessa and Baby J (WWWZ-FM 93.3).

Ironically though, it’s because of a decades-long policy of growing government noninterference that such changes are taking place in communities all around the country. Radio broadcasting, responding increasingly to market imperatives, has been condensed down to a few huge, profitable corporations that control what passes for local programming over most of the U.S.

Simply put, it’s more profitable to produce a few shows and syndicate them nationally than to employ producers, DJs, hosts, reporters and engineers to deliver genuinely local shows on local radio stations. Rocky D, Tessa, and Baby J have just succumbed to market forces. They will be replaced by friendly voices from far away. We’ll still have entertaining company on our morning and afternoon commutes. We’ll get used to the changes. So what, you ask, is the problem?

The problem is that we lose the voices that remind us we’re in Charleston and not in Charlotte or Charlottesville or Charleston, W.Va. We are deprived of voices that connect us to one another. They speak to the heart of community connections and, ultimately, to the preservation and health of our democracy.

An early admirer of American democracy, Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville, observed in 1835 that one of the healthiest aspects of our democracy was our surplus of “associations,” our unique tendencies to meet and talk and plan and problem-solve with fellow citizens. Ask yourself, which type of programming would better foster such associations today in Charleston? A syndicated show produced in Texas or a locally-produced show with access to information about issues and happenings in our own town?

In fact, when the Federal Communications Commission created regulations for broadcasters in the early 1930s, it wrote rules specifically designed to promote programming of local interest. Strict limits were placed on how many stations could be owned by a single company and companies could not own more than one station in a single broadcast market area.

The rules prevented the creation of corporate media giants. They kept local DJs talking and, in many cases, enhancing community spirit. And it isn’t just community spirit that matters. Even the democratic political process may be impacted in subtle but pervasive ways. Fewer local broadcasters produce less news and information about issues and personalities that determine the quality of life in our community. But healthy democracy depends on citizens being well-informed voters. How are busy citizens to stay well-informed in a climate of shrinking local news?

The consolidation of media corporations and the consequent shrinking of locally-based broadcasting are not new. They started in response to statutory changes enacted during the Reagan administration and flourished after passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, during the Clinton administration.

The legislative changes altered the broadcasting landscape for communities like ours throughout the country. Currently Clear Channel Communications, the largest radio station owner in the U.S., owns 850 stations in 150 cities — including four in Charleston. Cumulus Media, which recently bought and reprogrammed the stations of Rocky D, Tessa and Baby J, owns 570 radio stations nationwide, four of which are now in Charleston.

Whether the changes brought about by government noninterference and market forces are for the better or the worse is something we as citizens have to determine. We may end up deciding along with Rocky D (quoted in this paper last Friday) that “radio is in a world of hurt today.”

Faye B. Steuer, Ph.D., is Professor Emerita of Psychology at the College of Charleston and a founding member of Media Reform SC. She can be reached at steuerf@cofc.edu.