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Broadcasters union to FCC: don't change your radio ownership rules

The union that represents what’s left of the radio broadcasting workforce has told the Federal Communications Commission to keep its current restrictions on how many radio stations an entity can own. The filing by the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) is a reminder of how dramatically broadcast radio ownership has consolidated over the last 14 years:

“In 1996, the two largest U.S. radio group owners owned 62 and 53 stations, respectively. Today, Clear Channel Communications (Clear Channel) owns more than 800 stations, down from a high of about 1,100 in 2007. The second largest group, Cumulus Media, Inc. (Cumulus), owns about 400 stations today. The Clear Channel-Cumulus oligopoly represents a nationwide trend; the largest two radio station owners in a given market, on average, control 74 percent of the revenue. The largest one, on average, controls 46 percent.”

AFTRA adds that for radio, between the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and 2010, the number of commercial radio stations jumped by around 10 percent, while the number of station owners dropped by 40 percent.

The FCC is once again reviewing its media ownership rules. The present rule for radio is a bit complicated, but basically says that in big markets like New York or Los Angeles (45+ stations), an entity can own up to eight commercial licenses. Then the allowed number tapers down for lesser markets. In regions with 14 or fewer stations, an entity can own no more than five. The kicker is that there’s no limit on the number of commercial stations a company can own nationally. That’s why Clear Channel and Cumulus are what they now are.

One big piece of the debate over whether to keep this rule, make it more restrictive, or loosen it, will be an assessment of how much broadcast radio still matters. In other words, what percentage of the radio listening public do conventional broadcasters still serve, and what percentage has migrated to satellite, broadband, or mobile broadband radio?

Then there’s the question of how much of this old and new broadcasting offers consumers news and information about their local area? Probably not much, but the FCC is commissioning a series of studies to find out, and hopefully they’ll be useful.

In any event, here are AFTRA’s concluding words:

“AFTRA is strongly opposed to the elimination or relaxing of the remaining media ownership rules mentioned in the Commission‘s [Notice of Inquiry]. The rules were created pursuant to Congressional mandates to protect the public good, a mission more important now than ever before. Against the backdrop of heavy concentration of ownership in the hands of a few corporations, viewpoint diversity and local interests have never been more at risk. Public ownership of the airwaves is increasingly a theoretical concern rather than a concrete obligation of owners. The acquisition of new media interests by these owners only exacerbates the potential for harm. The risks are particularly serious for those who have the least means by which to fight back: minorities, local communities, and those with limited access to communications media.”

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