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Buyouts, Payoffs, and the Public Interest

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  • Eric Alterman
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Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman

Just this past week, New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer gave the nation yet another lesson in the danger of mega-media concentration when he announced that he had caught Sony BMG Music Entertainment – one of the world's leading record label owners – paying off radio stations and their employees in return for airplay for the company's songs.

Spitzer arrived at a $10 million settlement with Sony BMG in an investigation that is expected to shift to the other three major record companies – Vivendi Universal, the Warner Music Group and the EMI Group. More importantly, he's also looking into radio companies whose employees accepted gifts in exchange for playing songs, serving subpoenas to conglomerates Clear Channel Communications and Emmis Communications.

Clear Channel is the largest owner of radio stations in the country – running about 1,200 stations nationwide. It turns out that Sony negotiated deals with Clear Channel, in addition to several other large station owners, in which the record company offered kickbacks in exchange for airplay on the company's national roster of stations.

In response to this, FCC Commissioner Jonathan S. Adelstein called for an FCC investigation to determine whether the scandal violated federal payola laws, and asked Spitzer to share all of the evidence that he has uncovered with the FCc= Adding further fuel, one hopes, to this fire, Senator Russ Feingold suggested that the time had come to investigate the issues of payola "combined with increasing concentration and vertical integration in the radio industry."

What these two tireless public servants are addressing is not simply a DJ's decision to play Celine Dion instead of Green Day. Rather, it's an issue of the power wielded by our national global media conglomerates. Sony understood that it was dealing with companies that dominated local radio in markets across the country, and in striking deals with them, it could blanket the airwaves with no competition from smaller stations – since so many had already been either bought out or quashed by the megaliths.

We've known for some time that Clear Channel dominates local commercial radio in the United States to a degree that television stations and newspapers don't. But as Broadcasting & Cable pointed out Monday, more and more local newspapers are teaming up with their no less beleaguered local television news stations to work on stories and share content at a level that many may not be aware of. According a recent Ball State University study quoted in the piece, more than 100 newspapers across the country currently partner with local television stations to do just this.

According to B&C, media giant Gannett has partnered its print and broadcast news outlets in Knoxville, Tennessee, and in Arizona. The magazine writes – in a moment of stating the obvious – that "[s]ome of the best-executed partnerships exist in markets where the newspaper and TV station share a corporate parent." They point to Tampa, Florida, where Media General owns the Tampa Tribune, WFLA and the Web site TBO.com – with little editorial differentiation between the three: they share a facility, along with content and advertising. According to the piece, Belo Corp. has also jumped into the game, with WFAA Dallas and the Dallas Morning News sharing a facility and collaborating on stories.

But a problem with this kind of "cross pollination" approach is that the more media conglomerates can combine their print and broadcast operations in single markets, the easier it may be for them to nudge them to speak with one voice, thereby lessening the impact of independent, critical thought. I happen to have a friend who runs a shelter for the homeless in a small town in the Midwest. Because the family that owns the local newspaper and local TV and radio stations happens to hate the homeless and wants to defund any program that might help take care of them, getting the good news out about my friend's shelter's accomplishments to the community is nearly impossible.

Without the hullabaloo that accompanied Michael Powell's attempted corporate giveaways before he left the chairmanship of the FCC – a public outcry that led to Powell's plans being thwarted – his successor Kevin Martin has been quietly rewriting media ownership rules to allow corporate behemoths to own more TV stations and newspapers in single markets – thus shutting out smaller, independent voices. If he succeeds, and this melding of editorial functions continues apace, it looks like some markets would be fully subsumed under the watchful eye of a single company, which would control the stories the public sees, and they way they see them.

If Mr. Martin has his way, America will look more and more like a small town with only one voice. And the freedom to determine the course of our political debates will rest only with those wealthy enough to own not merely a printing press, but billions of dollars worth of broadcast satellites, fiber-optic cables, and studios – as well as a few hundred printing presses. In hastening that day, the FCC will be helping to destroy a vital lifeline of democracy.

Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of six books, including most recently, When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences.

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