Commentary

Commentary: Media Soapbox

Is consolidation killing commercial radio? And if so, how can it be saved? These are questions of critical importance to the entire music community, and the advertising community as well.

The Future of Music Coalition (www.futureofmusic.org) is a three-year-old nonprofit think tank that examines the music industry in search of policies, technologies, and business models that can benefit artists and citizens. In May 2002, we joined with nine other organizations that work in the music community, including artist unions, National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, the Recording Industry Association of America, music retailers, and others, to issue a Joint Statement on Current Issues in Radio. This document spelled out our shared concern that consolidation has led to a series of standard business practices in commercial radio that are "anti-artist, anti-competition and anti-consumer." These include "pay-for-play" independent promotion schemes and concerns about vertical integration of local markets, where one company may own the dominant radio stations, concert venues and promotion companies.

The document drew little response. Some programmers responded by claiming that consolidation has led to more diversity, not less, pointing to the large number of new formats that have been added since 1996. So where a fan of, say, jazz, classical, zydeco, opera, blues, tejano, alt-country, punk, or reggae might not find the music they cherish on commercial radio, somehow radio today is more diverse because marketers have created new names for formats to reach finely targeted demographics.

For the past year, the Future of Music Coalition has worked in partnership with the Media Access Project and the Rockefeller Foundation to examine the impact of consolidation on music and the radio. Later this year we will be releasing our complete study. Several weeks ago we released some initial findings from the study, namely the results of a national poll of 500 citizens by the Behavioral Research Center. The results were staggering. Among the findings: Half of the respondents say radio would be more appealing if it offered more new music, less repetition and more music by local bands and artists. By a ratio of 6-1, radio listeners prefer a long playlist that provides them a greater variety of songs and less repetition.

The short-term question, however, for those in the advertising industry is whether they are, in fact, served by a medium so rife with problems. Radio is quickly losing credibility with many consumers as a place to find new music. Awareness about troubling business practices like pay-for-play and voice tracking is growing. While radio consolidation has been driven primarily by companies looking to exploit its effectiveness as an advertising medium, wouldn't it be ironic for the advertising community to abandon radio as it loses its ability to reach the most attractive consumers?

Has consolidation been good for radio? It is a complicated question that deserves much greater discussion. Commercial radio is no longer the place to go to hear the great new song, the up-and-coming local artist or the creatively programmed set. It is, instead, the place to turn to when you are stuck in traffic and don't have a CD player or satellite radio. Consolidation certainly hasn't served artists, it isn't serving music fans, and it's doubtful it is serving the medium itself.

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