WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE (AND THUS AFFORD AIRPLAY)? [Rock & Rap Confidential/1998]... The number of Americans who listen to the radio during any given quarter-hour has fallen from 17.5% in 1990 to 15.9% in 1997. That's the lowest figure since 1981.

One reason: Radio stations, each of which has far less competition than before passage of the 1996 Clinton-Gore Telecom bill, spend much less money promoting themselves. Stations, which massive media corporations now own by the six pack per market, are under intense profit pressure, which means more ads, fewer records (or phone calls or news items) per hour. The virtual disappearance of local programming also encourages tune-out.

Amazingly, despite the claims of Clintonoid crackpots, the market is not self-correcting. Station owners, saddled with debt from their buying binges and unencumbered by any hint of regulation, jet off in search of maximum profit. The government, which is supposed to be watching out for the people's interests in determining who and what is allowed to permeate the public airwaves, never stops to consider anyone but the owners. But that 1.6% drop in listenership represents four million people who've given up on tuning in because they know that their voices, perspectives and tastes have no chance of being represented. Some listeners--the ones that big-ticket advertisers don't want to pitch to--just aren't profitable.

Juan R. Palomo, editor of The Salt Journal, a newspaper in San Marcos, Texas, wrote a February 18 USA Today editorial about what happened in his community: "San Marcos was served by KCNY, the local AM station that offered extensive coverage of the city's civic and political lives...it had extensive news and entertainment programming in Spanish. A few years ago...KCNY was sold to non-local interests who turned around and sold its entire broadcast day to an out-of-town Spanish-language religious broadcaster, leaving San Marcos with no local news broadcast outlet. An FM station licensed to San Marcos concentrates on serving Austin, 20 miles to the north, and offers no local programming."

Into the gap, Palomo proudly reports, stepped Kind Radio, an unlicensed micro-station whose 75 staffers provide bi-lingual programming 24 hours a day, including rap music shows, new sand interviews with community leaders, and commentary.

The government, through its Federal Communications Commission cops, continues to brand such local heroes as criminal and has targeted Kind Radio for shutdown. Among other things, the FCC claims that micro-stations are likely to cause plane crashes, even though Federal Aviation Administration official Nelson Spohnheimer recently claimed that it was commercial radio signals that may have caused the crash of Korean Air Flight 801 in Guam last summer.

On the other hand, the FCC has no problem with the emerging practice of open pay-for-play on commercial stations. No one has bothered to deny that this is anything but payola with the thinnest legal disguise, or that payola remains a federal crime. Interscope Records recently paid an undisclosed sum to KUFO/Portland (a recent acquisition of the CBS Radio chain) for 50 plays of Limp Bizkit's "Counterfeit." The primary difference between those plays and the traditional envelope of cash given to the program director is that a disclaimer is aired.

In Nashville, broadcasters originally proposed a price of $32,000 for one play of one song by a new artist, but that figure reportedly dropped to $10,000, at which level the record companies are reported to be seriously considering it. Capitol Nashville, run by executives hand-picked by Garth Brooks, says it will pay $1 million for an hour of programming on an entire radio station chain, while 192-station Jacor Radio acknowledges exploring "marketing partnerships and distributions plans with labels." All this makes it even harder for anyone without huge amounts of cash to get exposure for their music.

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