January 29, 2003

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Fighting media monopoly

IF YOU WANT to see a perfect example of exactly what's wrong with big national chains taking over and consolidating control of local news media, tune your radio to 106 FM, where KMEL once broadcast as one of the most important and groundbreaking commercial stations in the country.

Ten years ago, KMEL, which dubbed itself "the people's station," helped bring hip-hop to the mainstream, helped launch the careers of a number of big local artists, and offered valuable political shows. As Jeff Chang reports, during the mid 1990s, a heated competitive battle between KMEL and KYLD encouraged cutting-edge innovation – and gave local rappers abundant chances to get their music heard.

Then Clear Channel (a giant media conglomerate) bought both stations. The competition ended – and so did the innovation. Local artists were ignored. Public-affairs programming became little more than an afterthought. Today KMEL and KYLD share the same playlists and offer the same sort of drab, predictable material much of the time.

And while infuriated community activists in San Francisco fight an uphill battle to make Clear Channel executives in San Antonio, Texas, pay attention to their local needs, the Federal Communications Commission is preparing to change the rules of media ownership – in a way that will guarantee that Clear Channel's destruction of KMEL is repeated over and over again nationwide.

As Camille T. Taiara reports, the FCC is considering eliminating the rule that now prohibits that same company from owning daily newspapers and TV stations in the same market, as well as the rule that bars any one broadcast company from owning stations that reach more than a combined 35 percent of the households in the country, and the rule that prevents the four major broadcast networks from merging with one another.

Together the changes represent (even by the FCC's own account) "the most comprehensive look at media ownership ever undertaken" by the agency. In theory, the new rules could allow General Electric (which owns NBC) to merge with Westinghouse (which owns CBS) and Disney (which owns ABC) – and then buy Clear Channel, which owns more than 1,200 radio stations in the country. If that giant company bought or merged with, say Hearst Corp., then KNTV-TV, KGO-TV, and KPIX-TV (along with KGO and KCBS radio) would be owned by the same company that controls the San Francisco Chronicle – which would also own seven local radio stations.

The community would lose what little diversity of viewpoints remains among competing voices. The companies would gain the huge profits that come from monopoly control of a market.

FCC chairman Michael K. Powell likes to say that ownership rules are no longer needed in the Internet era, when media choices abound. But that's just silly: the vast majority of people in the United States still get all or most of their news – the information they need to make decisions, from voting to shopping and a whole lot in between – from one daily newspaper and one TV news show. And increasingly, the big players in the Internet (including Web site operators and providers of online access and broadband) are controlled by the same handful of big communications corporations.

By most accounts, the FCC's decision is a foregone conclusion. The panel, chaired by Bush appointee (and rabid deregulator) Powell, will almost certainly go ahead with the rule changes. The only real chance to restore the regulations lies with Congress – and that's a long shot at best.

There are some steps local communities can take: San Francisco, for example, can demand as a condition of its cable TV franchise that AT&T open its lines to all Internet service providers. The city can also demand more – and better – local programming on AT&T's community channels.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors – along with every county board and city council in California – should also pass a resolution opposing the FCC rule changes and calling on Congress (and their local congressional representatives) to pass strong legislation restoring tight controls on media ownership. The media companies have immense power; only a strong grassroots counterattack can begin to prevent the next big step in the wholesale consolidation of news media in the United States.

P.S.: The big media chains aren't the only ones trying to crush competition. As Savannah Blackwell reports, federal and state attorneys general filed charges this week accusing the SF Weekly's parent company, New Times Corp., of illegally colluding with Village Voice Media to end alternative newspaper competition in Los Angeles and Cleveland. The New Times-VVM deal was, and is, an embarrassment to the alternative press and a sad indication that an industry that grew up challenging and competing with the big-monopoly dailies has become increasingly dominated by companies that act just like the monopolists.