Washington radio icon Chris Core was given the boot in February after 33 years behind the microphone at WMAL-AM in the Nation’s Capital. He was part of a cost-cutting move by the station’s owners, who also fired the entire on-air staff of sister station WJZW-FM.
Marc Fisher, a Washington Post reporter who had written “The Listener” radio column since 1995, wrote his final column and signed off June 1, as he lamented the passing of “the kind of eccentric, iconoclastic voices that made radio so alluring from the 1950s into the ’80s.” Now, Fisher says, the talent is “mostly anonymous and amateur.” The implication: Radio in the Washington, D.C., market isn’t worth writing about anymore.
Critics of “media concentration” will be quick to seize on the tales of Core and Fisher to “prove” that big is bad. They will tell us that the multiple-station ownership practiced by big companies like Clear Channel and Citadel (which now owns WMAL) is the root cause of all that is wrong with radio today, from the loss of “localism” to the homogenization of programming.
Unfortunately, these critics will be exactly wrong. Media concentration is not the cause of radio’s problems – it is an effect of something else entirely: the fragmentation of audiences that has come about as exploding technology has given the public a whole new panoply of delivery platforms.
Listeners (and especially young listeners) are getting their audio fix via satellite radio, Internet radio, cell phones, and PDAs, and can create their own mix on iPods and MP3 players. Don’t forget free HD radio and, soon, free Internet radio in cars. The always-philosophical Core recognizes that “radio stations have to either evolve from their traditional ways or wither.”
Kenneth J. Goldstein, president of Communications Management Inc., presciently observes that fragmentation not only is the cause of consolidation (as station owners try to re-aggregate audiences), but also of cost pressures, less localism, content sharing, and stretching the boundaries of taste.
Regrettably, policymakers are being bombarded with the big-is-bad “concentration myth” by critics of multiple ownership. However, until policymakers understand the issue correctly (i.e., realize that media consolidation is merely one effect of technology-driven fragmentation), the debate is fated to be an uninformed waste of time. And any policy “solutions” that spring from such a spurious debate are almost sure to be catastrophic.