FCC Hears From Country Stars

NASHVILLE, TENN. Four FCC commissioners—Kevin Martin, Michael Copps, Jonathan Adelstein and Nashville’s own Deborah Tate—were on hand at Belmont University here for the second of six public hearings on the media ownership rules.

On the agenda were two panels: one focusing on how current media ownership rules affect the music industry and the other a look at the Nashville media market.

A number of the commissioners’ opening comments brought cheers and applause from the audience, particularly Adelstein’s and Martin’s vows to fight payola.

Copps, who cited a lifelong love of country music, may have gotten the biggest response, though. “If anyone tells you big media’s push for more consolidation has gone away, don’t believe it,” Copps said. “People don’t have enough say about how their airwaves are used, and it’s time for that to change.”

He also took the opportunity to attack former FCC chairman Michael Powell for attempting to loosen ownership restrictions “under cover of night.” The resulting outcry, according to Copps, “shows that concerned citizens can still make a difference in this country.

Adelstein, a musician and avowed music fan, questioned whether consolidated radio would allow Elvis Presley to get his start today. “I sometimes wonder if the next Elvis is out there somewhere throwing down his guitar in disgust because he can’t get on the radio because he’s ‘different,'” Adelstein said.

Panelists included country legend George Jones; singer, songwriter and activist Naomi Judd; pop, rock and R&B star Dobie Gray; songwriters and activists Rick Carnes and Craig Wiseman; Grand Ole Opry star Porter Wagoner; and new country stars Big and Rich and Cowboy Troy (Coleman) of Nashville’s Muzik Mafia.

Much of the testimony, particularly from artists, was either anecdotal or personal. Jones, for example, told the commission that “the consolidation of the radio industry has kept me from being played on the radio. It has kept me from earning my full potential as a country artist and has denied my fans and the American public the opportunity to hear my music.”

Wagoner agreed. “I’m still recording and releasing albums, but it’s harder now to get my music played,” he said. “In many ways I think this is because radio has changed so dramatically.”

“It’s not just the vintage artists that are getting denied; it’s the novice artists, too,” Gray said.

Jones has a similar take on consolidation. “Sugar is sweet, but too much can kill you,” he said. “Please don’t make it any harder on me or tomorrow’s rising stars.”

Coleman, whose describes his mix of country and rap as “hick-hop,” said his music has not widely been accepted at radio, in part due to consolidation. “It’s a lot more difficult to hear me on the radio,” he said, while noting his music is more prevalent on Internet and satellite radio. “If consolidation continues, you’ll see more and more exodus [by listeners] to other [places].”

“We need rules that promote localism and diversity,” according to veteran studio musician and local union president Harold Bradley.

Songwriter Wiseman quoted Radio & Records to make his point. “From 1996 to 1998, country radio averaged 40 No. 1 singles a year,” he said, referencing R&R, an Adweek sibling. “In 1999—and I quote, ‘a profound slowdown occurred at country radio, with only 18 No. 1 songs. By 2000, country was down to 15 hits.’ There was an obvious attempt to slow down the playlists on a corporate level and increase ad space, thereby increasing advertising revenue.”

“I’ve spent my entire life getting to the truth in three-and-a-half minutes,” Carnes said. “I can wrap-up my thoughts in five words: Big radio is bad radio.” Carnes said, while yearning for a return to local radio. “When I’m driving through Kentucky, let me hear bluegrass.”

Carnes added, “It’s time to lower the ownership caps to pre-1996 levels.”

Meanwhile, Cromwell Radio Group president Bud Walters, whose company owns stations in Tennessee, Kentucky and Illinois, was the lone commercial radio representative on the panel of witnesses. “We are not all big, and even the biggest are not all bad,” Walters said, noting that 3,000 licensees hold the licenses for 11,000 radio stations. “I personally have issues with Clear Channel, but it’s not because of the quality of their stations here. Has consolidation worked?” he said. “The short answer is ‘yes.’ In the early ’90s, half the radio stations were losing money.

“Many small-market stations are viable today because of consolidation,” he added, citing several of his own AM stations.

Turning the focus toward record companies, Walters pointed out that five conglomerates control much of the world’s popular music.

Sharon Kay, general manager of Fisk University’s WFSK and a broadcast veteran, questioned the need for any further consolidation. “When is having enough, enough?” she asked. “Is it ever going to be enough? Is it about the stockholders worldwide or the people living in the local community?”