Gatekeepers and Corporate Control of Radio

Deejay putting on record in radio sound booth 1

In the last two decades (1980s and 1990s), access to the mainstream media by many musicians has become more and more restricted. This is due to several factors, including the consolidation of the media; the policies of the major record companies, which keep getting larger and produce a limited number of hit oriented artists; record retailers, who charge more and more for shelf space and listening stations; and specially because of the work of the gatekeepers.

When some people hear the word gatekeeper, they automatically get the image of a shadowy government bureaucrat that spends his or her entire life filtering the news that the public receives. Unfortunately, gatekeepers are more abundant than one can imagine and the majority of them are not in the government, but in the corporate world. The entertainment business has many layers of gatekeepers and music is no stranger to the world of individuals who choose the kind of music that we will listen to, or read about, in broadcast and print media. Naturally, these folks don’t use the term gatekeepers to describe themselves. In the world of music media they use nicer sounding names such as Program Director, Managing Director, Managing Editor or Radio Format Consultant. In the United States, where unregulated commercial practices and marketing are taken to extremes, creative music has suffered considerably. Radio is a good example of this. Recordings have been absurdly formatted by gatekeepers for
commercial radio airplay. The formats may change every once in a while, but, in general, there are just a handful of them. Most are old formats with new names:
CHR
(Contemporary Hit Radio), Soft Rock, Urban (R&B & hip hop), Country, Oldies, Classic Rock, and Smooth Jazz.

As more and more radio stations have become part of large corporations,
standardized formats can be found repeatedly throughout the United States in most metropolitan areas. If an artist does not conform to these limited formats, getting airplay in commercial radio becomes practically an impossible achievement.

By now, most commercial radio stations lack any personality. Programming for
hundreds of stations is dictated from company headquarters and by consultants (a.k.a.
gatekeepers). Indeed, in many cases, the corporate owners of radio stations rely
exclusively on playlists that are developed by a handful of consultants. The result is that whether you are in New York City, Atlanta, Los Angeles, or Minneapolis, you will listen to the exact same music (and sometimes the same DJs, thanks to satellite feeds). But not only will a listener find the same songs and artists everywhere, the songs themselves will all sound pretty much alike. For example, in the smooth jazz format, the main consultant is Broadcast Architecture. They
basically determine what is and what is not smooth jazz. To qualify for this format, artists and labels need to meet a number of requirements that are so strict that they end up forcing most recordings to sound alike.

Large radio empires, such as Clear Channel, Cox Radio, Radio One, and Cumulus, rely on consulting firms or centralized programming. Republican government officials at the
FCC (Federal Communications Commission) and
conservative politicians (Libertarians and Republicans) who support additional deregulation of the media and the free rule of the “market,” claim that competition is good for the consumer because it provides more choices and that there are enough media outlets (radio, Internet, cable, TV) out there to give everybody a voice. Under the Bush Administration, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has caved in to industry lobbyists and has developed a policy of deregulation in virtually all areas of communications, allowing markets to operate without interference wherever possible.

In real life radio, multiple outlets and consumer choice never happen. Gatekeepers established a limited number of radio formats and a restricted number of songs in rotation within those formats. Only public, college and community radio stations are currently playing a wide span of musical styles. As was mentioned earlier, commercial radio plays a very restricted number of genres and songs and, regrettably, many of the public radio stations, who happen to be the ones that reach larger audiences, are dropping music shows in favor of talk radio.

Satellite radio, college radio, community radio and online broadcasts seem to be the only hope left for those citizens who want to listen to music that is not dictated by corporate gatekeepers. Satellite radio is by far the most exciting
because right now consumers have two satellite services available,
Sirius Satellite Radio
and XM Radio, that provide quality programming nationwide. Both subscription-based satellite companies provide world music (and other roots music related) channels. The drawback is that programming is carried out by gatekeepers.

The rest of the media outlets don’t fare as well. College radio, community radio and online broadcasts are not as easily available as it may seem. Many college and community stations have very weak signals and can barely be heard outside their location. Sometimes, they can’t even reach their entire metropolitan areas. Specialized shows are broadcast, in general, only once a week, which makes it very difficult to develop a large devoted audience. A small network, Pacifica Radio, is well known for its eclectic programming, including a lot of world music, although it too suffered problems in the recent past due to discrepancies between management and employees.

For a while there was the hope of the Low Power FM Broadcast Radio Stations. However, progress has been slow and powerful enemies soon appeared. Commercial and public radio stations joined forces to fight against the development of Low Power FM Broadcast Radio Stations. Time will tell if these stations will be able to grow and thrive.

Online broadcasting also has its problems. Not all computer users have broadband access and the stations themselves are struggling to keep up with broadcast fees and legal issues regarding the public airplay of copyrighted music.

Gatekeepers keep claiming that they know what’s best for the consumer through skewed surveys. In reality, they rarely take into account the interests of the public and have managed to prevent whole generations from accessing anything that is not mainstream pop culture.

Some citizens are rebelling in various forms. Public discontent led the US Congress recently to overrule the FCC’s recent decisions. Web sites have been
created to criticize the power of large media conglomerates: ClearChannelSucks.org, Americans for Radio Diversity, Corporate Media Portal, Musicians Lobby, Petition to Boycott Clear Channel, Stop Clear Channel, Denver Radio Sucks. Several organizations are discussing and acting on the problem: The Future of Music Coalition, Reclaim the Media, Media Reform, and the musicians unions like AFTRA and AFM.

If you want to express your dissatisfaction, you can contact your U.S. Senators and Representatives. Use this page to find your representative: http://www.house.gov/writerep.

You can also contact the FCC Chairman and Commissioners: Chairman Michael K. Powell, mpowell@fcc.gov; Commissioner Kathleen Q. Abernathy: kabernat@fcc.gov, Commissioner Michael J. Copps: mcopps@fcc.gov; Commissioner Kevin J. Martin: kjmweb@fcc.gov; Commissioner Jonathan S. Adelstein: jadelste@fcc.gov.

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