The creative landscape is changing. Technologies like Pro Tools, the iPod, and peer-to-peer networks have become mainstream in the digital age, creating a wild frontier of sorts in music. Independent artists can reach mass audiences once forbidden to them. These technologies are fostering the rise of “semiotic democracy”—where more and more people are no longer passive consumers of mass media, but active participants in creating culture. Cops vs Lawyers, Issue 3

الاثنين، تموز ١٩، ٢٠٠٤

Independents Under Seige

"The flow of communication is being hindered by political and commercial forces..."
by Thomas Hynes

For most of 2004, the American home front has been littered with an indecency scare. While it’s okay to view images of war, crucifixions and torture on T.V., Janet Jackson’s titty will simply not be tolerated.

Headed by Michael Powell, (son of Secretary of State Colin Powell), the Federal Communications Commission has answered the cries of outraged Americans, promising to wield fines of up to $500,000 for each instance of indecency.

But society is already flush with potty mouth. Powell’s crusade is just a red herring for one of the grossest examples of corporate conglomeration since the days of the steel tycoons and robber barons. Except today, the commodities are the nations airwaves and the people’s access to information. The Bay Area, like the rest of the nation, finds itself at a junction where the flow of communication is being hindered by political and commercial forces.

Though the FCC has tightened its noose around foul language and nudity, it has not gotten tough on conglomeration. Since the passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, companies such as Clear Channel have been able to grow and expand without restriction. Prior to the Act, Clear Channel owned 40 radio stations nationwide. Today they own 1,240 radio stations nationwide. They are also the nation’s largest concert promoter. So in the majority of American cities, you’d better jive with whatever Clear Channel says otherwise neither you nor your concert information will be heard on the airwaves. In a way, Clear Channel’s not really threatening free speech directly, so much as they’re just hoarding up all the soapboxes.

They tried to take Davey D’s soapbox, when he was a deejay for Clear Channel-owned KMEL 106.1, aka “The Peoples Station”. Davey D was fired for inviting Congresswoman Barbara Lee on his show on October 1st, 2001. Clear Channel felt that the views expressed by Davey D and Congresswoman Lee on the impending war in Afghanistan were not in line with the station’s philosophy. That Monday, Davey D was informed that KMEL was cutting its budget and letting him go. And even though Davey D was a cultural and educational pillar of KMEL, he was not afforded the opportunity to say goodbye to his listeners. His Saturday afternoon show “Street Knowledge” was immediately canceled and upcoming guests Jesse Jackson and Ralph Nader were not rebooked. Luckily, we can still hear from Davey D on KPFA 94.1 FM and at his website http://www.daveyd.

Harrison Chastane, News Director for San Francisco’s KPOO 89.5 FM, fears the ambiguity of this new FCC initiative and says no specific written criteria exist on the commission’s recent position. He pointed out that obscenity fines are now being handed out for infractions outside of the “seven dirty words” banned by the Supreme Court. KPOO might even have to suspend its coverage of town meetings due to the sometimes off-color nature of these civic proceedings. Chastane said that KPOO could remedy the problem by investing in a tape delay, but that would cost his station upwards of $3,000—a hefty cost for any independent radio station.

Similarly, stations such as KPOO are more reluctant to go to the mat with the FCC over these fines due to the cost of trying to fight them. Portland, Oregon’s KBOO won its case against the FCC and retained the right to broadcast such progressive voices as Mumia Abu Jamal. However, KBOO’s fight with the FCC cost around five times the original fine in legal fees.

Losing the ability to broadcast municipal proceedings should be enough to cause a public stir. However, this struggle seems to only have caught national attention last March when Howard Stern’s show was pulled from six Clear Channel markets. CEO John Hogan testified before Congress that day and apologized for the “vulgar, offensive and insulting” material broadcasted over his stations’ airwaves. And though there was no way to rectify the past, Mr. Hogan’s executive order, issued that same day, promised zero tolerance for any incident in the future.

I attempted to contact both KMEL 106.1 and KISQ 98.1 (also owned by Clear Channel) to see how Zero Tolerance would affect local programming; I got no response. I also tried to contact their corporate office in San Antonio; I called Lisa Dollinger, Senior VP of Corporate Communications for Clear Channel and author of the press release outlining Mr. Stern’s dismissal. Her secretary informed me that Ms. Dollinger was on the phone, so I left a message.

About an hour later, I got a call—not from Dollinger, or from Clear Channel at all, but from Joseph Lobello of Brainerd Communications, a media relations firm in New York City. He said that Miss Dollinger would be out of the office for the day—not on the other line as the secretary in San Anonio alleged.

Lobello was totally innocuous—like Clear Channel wasn’t actually some evil corporate giant after all. He made it seem like local programmers could play whatever they wanted. Unless, of course, programmers crossed Clear Channel’s line in the sand, in which case they would be fired immediately and, as Zero Tolerance implies, without exception.

But Davey D ain’t buying it. The real problem, according to him, is the lack of balancing points of view. If Clear Channel is allowed to grow to the size they have, they must bear the responsibility of presenting both sides of an issue. And that doesn’t mean giving an inch when a mile is required. Contrasting ideologies must be allowed full and clear articulation on a “People’s” radio. Anything less than that, according to Davey D, would be “window dressing... [like] throwing a morsel of food to a starving man.”

The FCC must spend less time fining obscenity and respond instead to Clear Channel’s conglomeration. At no point is monopolistic expansion healthy for anyone. In order to get airtime, artists must now conform to a corporate style dictated by a single board of executives, thus compromising creativity and losing the message. When fewer people control more of the airwaves, culture narrows to the disposition of the few.

Government and commerce must not have the sweeping control over our information outlets that they are now getting. Not when restrictions are being made on such basic civil liberties as marriage. Not when rumblings of lies and misdirection seem to stammer out of the White House on a daily basis. Not now. We must demand the truth and nothing else. We must realize that cuss words and malfunctioning wardrobes are not going to ruin this nation, but that lies, injustice and corporate censorship certainly will.