For many people in the U.S., that eureka moment happened in the years following the 1996 Telecommunications Act, when it suddenly became legal for giants like Clear Channel to gobble up many more radio and TV stations than previous restrictions allowed. The result was a homogenized sound heard round the nation (among other consequences, including a decline in minority ownership), sometimes multiple conglomerate-owned media existed in one market. Years later, the bubble of this business model burst, and the giants began liquidating stations they had acquired in smaller markets. Sure, there was probably a small trickle-down effect and some areas might have slightly better sounding radio now than they did in the late '90s, but overall, not much sounds different.
Sure, we've got the left end of the dial, aka the non-commercial FM spectrum, where community radio provides solace and salvation in many metropolitan areas and college towns across the U.S. But let's face it, religious broadcasters are in control of much of the non-commercial spectrum in most parts of the country, so even this allotted span of relief on the FM band doesn't provide much alternative programming. There is a group called Common Frequency out there, and they are trying to help community groups grab open FM slots on the non-commercial band before the religious megacasters can get to it.
The LPFM movement has also allowed more independent voices access to the airwaves in recent years, and that effort will likely continue to grow in the years to come. One may argue that tossing teeny 100-watt-or-less scraps of spectrum to the people while large conglomerates and religious broadcasters can stretch out over the wide expanse of the FM prairie isn't a great way to manage the public's airwaves, but that's where things stand.
Why does NYC radio suck so much?
But the dial in NYC is like a rush hour train in Tokyo. In a such large and extremely crowded radio market, even fellow non-commercial broadcasters have been known to go at each other's jugulars in attempts to gain or defend a few watts here and there. People live on top of each other in NYC, and the same goes for the FM band. The situation is worsening with the advent of digital radio, which operates in the narrow corridor of breathing room that once existed between frequencies. The result is a garbled mess in the frequencies with fewer watts, WFMU's included. Clearly there are few, if any, unclaimed slivers of spectrum for a newbie prospecting broadcaster in our area. LPFM is not an option in many metropolitan areas of the U.S.
If there's no space on the dial, the people take to the internet, and many local internet radio projects have cropped up quite recently here in NYC: Indie Darkroom, Heritage Radio Network, and Newtown Radio. These new voices add to the many other web radio projects in our area, including East Village Radio, Free103point9, and the now-defunct Radioo. There is also a new web radio voice in Chicago called the Chicago Independent Media Project, who took to the internets last year when left with no FM options. The uptick in new web radio projects is interesting to me, especially since radio's funerary processional theme has been hummed so many times since the internet took over our entertainment needs.
I'm not sure how internet radio will make broadcast radio suck less, but it may drive people away from their tuners and further into the abyss of plenty. A person living in a plains state serviced only by megabroadcasters and religious programmers can access community radio from New Orleans thanks to the magical internet. But the catch is, they have to know how to find their other radio options. Sure, people aren't stupid and they know how to search the internet using terms like "good radio" or their genre of choice, but there aren't too many opportunities for chance encounters on the internet (you have to know what you're looking for in order to "discover" it, sort of oxymoronical). Plugging a specific term into the goog ain't the same as spinning the dial to see what you can catch. And listening to a station in another part of the country isn't going to deliver the cultural flavor endemic to your locality.
Another issue with independent voices being pushed to the internet is that webcasting gets expensive. I've already ranted plenty about the webcasting royalty battle that emerged a few years ago (and still isn't really resolved), not to mention servers, tech upkeep, etc. Most of the newbies in the webcasting game are basing their finances on fee schemes for DJs, underwriting, fees for artists if they want to be played, or the deep pockets of vested interests. A few have been successful with listener support campaigns and foundation funding through grants.
Time is obviously the only way to measure the success or staying power of any new radio voices, or on the flipside, the perseverance of broadcast radio iteself. Will we reach a point when broadcast radio no longer matters and all radio listening happens via the internet? If so, what will that mean in terms of new programming discoveries, funding, or localism?
Thanks for reading my latest radio rant... it's been a while!