The Dixie Chicks are the face of the new radio age. Wildly successful, thanks in no small part to radio play on stations owned by Clear Channel Communications and concerts at their venues, the country trio also allegedly has suffered the ire of radio's biggest player.
The story should be fairly familiar by now. Chicks lead singer Natalie Maine makes an off-the-cuff remark ("Just so you know, we're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas") during a London concert in the weeks leading up to the US invasion of Iraq. A backlash ensues, including petitions against the band, threats and -- this is the key -- boycotts by radio stations, including those owned by the two largest chains in the country.
Cumulus Media, owner of 260 stations, banned the Chicks from their 41 country music stations. And many Clear Channel stations dropped the Chicks from their playlists, as well, even though company officials say there was no corporate directive to do so. Clear Channel owns 1,200 stations nationwide.
The decision to this obviously was not a musical one -- Home, the trio's most recent disc, had climbed to the top of the pop and country charts. It was a political decision, and one that shows very clearly the dangers of media consolidation.
And it speaks directly to why proposed Federal Communications Commission rule changes are likely to be devastating for democracy. Essentially, in an age of mass media consolidation, the space for dissent shrinks.
That makes the battle over the public airwaves a vitally important one.
Significant damage has been done already. Most cities are lucky to have one major daily newspaper. Local radio has become a thing of the past and there are just three major and three mid-size cable television companies. When Ben Bagdikian first published The Media Monopoly in 1984, there were about 50 companies controlling American mass media. That number shrunk to half a dozen by the time the sixth edition of the book was published in 2000.
And that was before the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which essentially ended controls on radio station ownership. Before the legislation, radio companies were limited to two stations per market and no more than 28 nationwide, as Eric Boehlert pointed out in an excellent series of articles on Salon.com.
"Government policy enforced the notion that radio was broadcast on the public airwaves and had an accompanying public trust," he wrote. "Local stations were supposed to be assets to local communities. The ownership rules were designed to keep ownership as diverse as possible and keep the stations' focus as local as possible."
But the 1996 law altered the landscape, removing the rules and leading to a series of mergers that have left a handful of companies controlling radio in the 100 largest American markets, he wrote.
The same is likely to happen if the FCC approves the latest round of rule changes, as it is expected to (a vote is slated for June 2, after my deadline, though media activists and members of Congress from both parties were trying to postpone it).
The FCC -- at the behest of Chairman Michael Powell and his allies in the media industry -- is seeking to eliminate rules that prohibit single ownership of a daily newspaper and a broadcast television station; limit the number of stations that one company can own in a market; limit the number of stations a single company can own nationally to the equivalent of those reaching no more than 35% of all TV households; and prevents the four major networks -- ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox -- from buying each other.
Gutting the rules, critics say, will lead to more stations being owned by fewer companies, with fewer voices having the opportunity to be heard. Local television news -- already a victim of commercial needs -- will focus less and less on the local stories that matter, ceding more and more air time to crime, quirky national profiles and other tame filler.
More importantly, the space for public discourse will narrow even further, with opinions not in keeping with the mainstream or those challenging the power of the corporate realm being shut out.
The backlash against the Dixie Chicks may be just a prelude of things to come. And that's the greatest danger of all.
There are a lot of groups out there challenging the rule changes. (Even if they pass the FCC, there is a chance that the FCC vote can be overturned by new legislation.)
Center for Digital Democracy, 2120 L St., NW Ste. 200, Washington, D.C. 20037; (202) 452-9898; www.democraticmedia.org.
Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, 112 W. 27th St., New York, N.Y. 10001; (212) 633-6700; www.fair.org.
Center for Democratic Communications, 1771 Alcatraz Ave., Berkley, Calif. 94703; (510) 594-0995; www.nlgcdc.org.
The Media Access Project, a non-profit, public interest law firm, 1625 K St. NW, Suite 1118, Washington, D.C. 20006; (202) 232-4300; www.mediaaccess.org.
Media Alliance, 814 Mission St. #205, San Francisco, Calif. 94103; (415) 546-6334
Mediareform.net, a project of Free Press, 26 Center St., 2nd floor, Northampton, Mass., 01060; (413) 585-1533; www.mediareform.net.
MoveOn.org, 336 Bon Air Center, Greenbrae, Calif. 94904; (510) 524-6100; www.moveon.org.
Save Our Media, 501 3rd St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20001; (202) 434-1100; www.saveourmedia.org
Hank Kalet is a poet and managing editor of two central New Jersey weekly newspapers. Email firstname.lastname@example.org