Thinking Out Loud about Media Consolidation
Musicians have been opposed to media consolidation and, as the recent firing of Arlene Violet shows, local on-air talk-show talent may have cause for concern, too. And while the personal concerns of those who are directly affected would seem understandable, what about those of us who are the consumers of the resulting “watered down” product?
I don’t like the idea of all radio stations playing the same 40 songs by Britney or Christina or 50 Cent or of all talk radio becoming national. Instead of formulaic diva ballads, 120 beats/sec synthpop or gangsta rap (with conspicuous bleeping!) assaulting my ears no matter where I turn my radio dial, I’d like a little variety. I think that most over-18 Americans feel the same. But let me back up.
Country music icon George Jones echoes my pattern of thinking on this:
“I’m not against companies making money,” said country music great George Jones, who said he and his fans have suffered under tighter radio playlists that he says are often determined by a relative few with little knowledge of country music history.
But there are those that say that consolidation actually keeps smaller stations viable:
Bayard Walters, past chairman of the Tennessee Association of Broadcasters, said many small-town radio stations are operating and viable today because of consolidation.
Many of those stations provide opportunities for new and local artists, as well as local content like news, weather and traffic, he said.
Walters argued that there are 11,000-plus commercial radio stations nationwide. The biggest five companies own 2,000 of those, while the next 20 only own 1,000 stations. There are a greater number of licensees today than there were in 1972, he said.
“There are those that say broadcasters don’t do enough, but what is the balance in presenting local and new music versus what the public seems to indicate what it wants to hear through ratings and purchases?” he said. “It does not seem to me that the license says, ‘Market for free the music of whomever wants to be on the radio.'”
According to this political typology test, I come out as an “Enterpriser,” so it would seem that I’d be all for unfettered capitalism, including consolidation. I’m willing to concede that there is a chance that the concerns about it are over-blown. Today’s technology–like iTunes or Yahoo Music and the like–enables the end-user to discover alternative music from almost every genre. (Some of these, such as Yahoo, even make suggestions based on individual listening tendencies–smart technology that certainly enhances the consumers listening experience by offering more variety). So maybe media consolidation isn’t so much of a concern when it comes to the music we listen to. But what about talk radio?
As I mentioned, Arlene Violet comes to mind immediately, but what about the affect that consolidation has on competition within a local market? For instance, for a few years, 790 The Score (WSKO) was the only sports talk station in town. But through consolidation, the owners of Boston powerhouse sports talk station WEEI was able to convert one of its stations in the Providence market and bring Boston sports talk to Rhode Island.
In one aspect, this is good for the consumer. As the #1 rated sports talk station in the nation (if we’re to believe WEEI’s promos), WEEI brings a high quality product to the market. The deeper pockets helps the station provide fans with regular access (via interviews) to high profile sports peronalities like the coaches and players of the Patriots and the Red Sox. This is something a smaller station, like WSKO, can’t do.
However, where WSKO does shine is in it’s coverage of local sports, specifically college athletics (PC, URI and Brown). Sports talk on WEEI is almost totally dominated by the Big Two (Red Sox and Patriots), a reflection of the Professional Sports mentality that permeates the Boston sports culture. While The Score does a good job of covering pro sports, it’s willingness and ability to cover the teams of Rhode Island’s colleges sets it apart and gives its “brand” a quality different than WEEI. Nonetheless, the jury is still out as to whether this is enough to keep it viable.
Which brings me back to Arlene. Just like WSKO can cover local college sports better than a Boston station, local talk show hosts are familiar–and can deal more intelligently–with local issues. This is something (almost by definition) that national hosts can’t and won’t do. I guess the question is whether markets the size of Providence (and smaller) can have more than one viable, local option. Dan Yorke has obviously won the ratings war, or WHJJ wouldn’t have made the move to fire Arlene. (While Yorke is certainly a good local host, WHJJ also has themselves to blame for making the disastrous turn to Air America, which killed their ratings across the board. Ironically, Violet had the most successful show throughout the Air America experiment.) I think Yorke is popular enough locally so that he doesn’t have to worry about WPRO making a similar move as WHJJ and, as the only remaining local option at 3 PM, he stands to benefit from WHJJ’s move. (Rhode Islanders–like most New Englanders–are notoriously provincial, after all!)
In the end, I understand the economic benefits that media consolidation generates for station owners. I’m also willing to concede that there may be some benefits acrued by the consumer of media, but I still have doubts that “it’s all good.” Maybe I’m being pretentious about aesthetics or maybe my concerns are a manifestation of my left-handedness/right-brain, artsy-fartsy sympathetic side coming through, but I can’t help but think that more options would be better all around. Of course, maybe I don’t know what the hell I’m writing about, either. I’m sure you’ll let me know.