The bigger they get, the harder they fall. While the National Association of Broadcasters continues to wield tremendous power in Washington, the radio industry lobbying group is trying desperately to outlaw the competition. Listeners are losing interest in radio, with its poor reception and irritating commercials, and getting more interested in the digital gadgets that adapt to our listening habits as fast as those habits change. Radio is still a big bully, but it's taking a beating from two powerful competitors: satellite radio and podcasting.
If you've been Christmas shopping in electronics stores recently, you've seen the displays for satellite radio gadgets and subscriber packages. The two providers are Sirius ($12.95 a month) and XM ($9.95 a month); both offer more than 100 channels of talk and music--with more than 60 of those commercial-free. More than 3 million Americans have subscribed.
NAB has been fighting satellite services every step of the way, arguing that "there is no need for 'more' radio service, no need for national radio service and no need for more competition," according to NAB literature from the late 1990s. Digital radio is slowly being put in place, which means better reception over the same old airwaves.
Yet the radio industry keeps driving its own listeners away, into the arms of a national, commercial-free service. And the decency crusade of Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell has driven radio talent over to satellite, too, most notably Howard Stern, who is moving to Sirius. That's also where you'll find Air America, while former NPR announcer Bob Edwards is on XM.
Considering that some of the most popular radio talk shows are predicated on broadcasting lewd, offensive material, the indecency crusade is a big sting to the industry. So it's claiming that the FCC should regulate the content of satellite radio, too. Never mind that it's a subscription service, like cable; in a typical twist of logic, broadcasters argue that satellite radio is played in public places such as restaurants and lobbies where it can be heard by the general public. (And never mind that it wasn't the general public, but a single group called the Parents Television Council, which lodged more than 90 percent of complaints with the FCC over indecent programming.) The FCC re-affirmed last week that regulating satellite services for indecent content is not its job.
This effort probably won't go anywhere, just like the Local Emergency Service Preservation Act introduced by two of NAB's favorite congressmen, a bill that would have banned satellite radio from broadcasting any localized content. That bill has been languishing in committee since last spring.
Legal, free and impossible to control
There's an even more exciting challenge to radio: podcasting. It's got all the fun and potential of pirate radio, but it's legally accessible to anyone in the world with a Web connection and an MP3 player. The term is a bit misleading since it's not just for iPods, and it's not really a broadcast; it's more like TiVO--you download the sound streams you want onto your player and listen when you like. Subscribing to your favorite podcasts is free, and better yet, it's a two-way technology that lets anyone put stuff on the Web to share with the world. And did I mention it's free?
Remember Adam Curry, the big-haired MTV veejay from the '80s? Today he's a geek living in London. In August he released free software called iPodder, which allows listeners to download digital audio files to digital music players. Then he worked with the creator of another piece of software, RSS (which stands for Really Simple Syndication), an invaluable tool for keeping track of updated Weblogs. Put the two together, and updated podcasts will automatically download to your MP3 player.
Like blogs, podcasts appeal to fans of music and information that's outside the mainstream. Say you're into rare bluegrass recordings or 1920s jazz--there is a podcast out there for you, and if not, you could create one. More mainstream stuff is out there, too, like This American Life and Air America. Media activists have also taken an interest in podcasting their opinions and ideas.
Local podcaster Brian Russell of Chapel Hill launched his site, audioactivism.org , this fall. It includes his own podcast show, "3 URLS," and a roundup of other activist-oriented podcasts. "The goal of audioactivism.org is to tell people about cool Web sites that perform great activism in media, politics, information, etc.," he says on the site. Russell believes the interaction between podcasters and their audiences will revive the creative spirit that used to exist in the early days of radio--and that it will be immune to corporate manipulation. "Keep in mind that the Internet's networks are inherently different than analog broadcast. Its ad hoc nature of routing communication and lack of a central point of control will ultimately defy all who try controlling it."
To get started on your own podcast experience, check out the information and site list at www.ipodder.org.
The election is over, but the media battle isn't. Sinclair Broadcast Group, the bastion of fairness and balance that aired portions of the anti-John Kerry film Stolen Honor but refused to air Nightline's fallen soldier memorial special "The Fallen," is back under public scrutiny. Last week, David Brock's media watchdog group Media Matters for America, along with MoveOn and several other groups, reinvigorated the campaign against Sinclair, which owns and operates 62 television stations, for its "continued misuse of public airwaves."
Sinclair Vice President Mark Hyman's nightly editorial "The Point" is the main object of criticism. A statement on the campaign's Web site, sinclairaction.com, says "Mark Hyman consistently espouses one-sided, conservative rhetoric without any counterpoint. We believe the fairest way to remedy this situation is for Sinclair to provide a meaningful opportunity for those with an opposing point of view to respond." The campaign asks viewers to contact Sinclair advertisers and urge them to encourage the network to do just that.
Speaking of right wing demagogues with too much airtime, Sen. Zell Miller has been signed as an official Fox News contributor. Apparently his spectacular performance at the Republican National Convention went over well at Fox, giving ratings a boost. Imagine what the ratings would be if they could convince Chris Matthews to show up for that duel.
The future of sharing ideas
The good news is, Congress ended this term without passing a very poorly conceived anti-piracy bill that would have made it easier for Hollywood to prosecute movie bootleggers and those who trade music online with peer-to-peer services. The bad news is, the Supreme Court has taken up the case of MGM v. Grokster. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in August that P2P sites were not liable for copyright infringement. It based its decision on the 1984 Supreme Court decision that Sony was not liable for copyright infringements made by people using its Betamax video cassette recorder. Activists who want to protect P2P and limit the power of the entertainment industry to criminalize technology have long feared that the Betamax decision could be overturned. We'll soon find out.
Public Knowledge, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, is deeply worried. "The big content companies are trying to accomplish in this case what they have failed to do in the 20 years since Betamax, and what they have failed this year to accomplish in Congress--to put restrictions on new technologies that suit their purposes not the needs of consumers," wrote Gigi B. Sohn, president of Public Knowledge on its Web site.
For more on that case, see www.publicknowledge.org.