Friday, April 06, 2012


I recently had to read an article in the LA Times about Sirius/XM satellite radio

I am actually listening to Sirius/XM as I type this. I often have it on—or rather, my boyfriend does. And so I grok it, and have done so for years, since it was XM. And Sirius. 

They were two different, competing satellite radio companies. XM was the cool one, with baseball games and Wolfman Jack and Casey Kasem and Little Steven and Bob Dylan and Soul Street and other excellent musical programming; and Sirius was the meathead one, with football and Howard Stern. And Mel Karmazin.


(Soul Street was a truly fine broadcast of deep cuts of classic 1960s soul with actual DJs in Washington, D.C., I do believe. I discovered and rediscovered such beauty through Soul Street.)

I always thought it was incredibly ironic and funny that Mel Karmazin had gone to Sirius.

Who is Mel Karmazin, you ask?

Oh, he's this guy. Right now he's the CEO of Sirius/XM.

Karmazin may be known now as a satellite radio guy, but he spent his career in corporate radio, climbing the ladder just as quickly as traditional, Mom-and-Pop American radio sank. I don't know if you can fairly blame one upon the other, but these events were not merely coincidental.

I was happy to forget about the man, but this L.A. Times article shoved him into my consciousness again, like a bad memory that won't die. (I interviewed him in 2001 for an oral history of early KROQ I did for Los Angeles magazine. His company bought KROQ from an independent owner in 1986.) 

Remember how radio sucked in the '90s—but then, against all probability, actually got worse? Remember that? The primary reason that radio sucked before, and then super-sucked super-quickly, was that corporate radio mega-conglomerates were allowed to take over larger and larger portions of local markets. 

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 handed over our radio waves to the big corporate conglomerates on a platter, more or less. That's why radio started to suck so hard, so fast. Just think about Hootie. You remember it, don't you. I know you've tried to forget.

You want to forget, but you just can't.

Previously, there had been restrictions on how many radio stations a single company could own. Why, you ask? In mass media as in botanical ecosystems, diversity=health. If you only have one crop, you're incredibly vulnerable to pests, disease, and disaster. Likewise, if you only have one or a handful of radio owners, you're incredibly vulnerable to stagnation, homogeneity, and suckitude. And if we're talking about news radio, the very life of the free press is at stake. (In L.A., our two major news radio stations, KNX and KFWB, were owned by the same company. And then their owner turned one of them into a really crappy talk station. So we lost competition and quality. Thanks, deregulation!)

When radio was first invented/discovered, it was recognized as a public resource, something given to us by a kind god and owned by all of us, to serve all of us, and to be protected and managed like our water, air, or any other precious natural resource. (Again, not a perfect analogy, but you get the point.) To assure radio's connection to its actual owners—that is, We the People—it was deemed that nobody could own multiple stations in one geographic area. Why? To keep things interesting, of course. 

To quote deep thinker and former radio DJ Doc Searles:

“When I was coming up in radio, back in the Seventies, there were limits on broadcast property ownership. Back then, you could own seven AM, seven FM and seven TV stations [in the whole country]: the 7-7-7 rule. And in any one metropolitan area, you could own at most one AM, one FM and one TV station.”
“In 1985, 7-7-7 went up to 12-12-12.”
“Then came the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Now the limits were 8-infinity: Up to eight stations in any one market, and no limit on the total nationwide.”
It's perfectly fitting that he uses the phrase "infinity" here. That's also the name of Mel Karmazin's former company.

Mel Karmazin, who now runs satellite radio, says he aggressively lobbied for the The Telecom Act of 1996. 

The arguments these lobbyists used were Orwellian in their doublethink: it was intended “to provide for a pro-competitive, de-regulatory national policy framework . . . by opening all telecommunications markets to competition...."

Pure bullshit.

Lobbyists such as Mel Karmazin knew full well this bill would kill actual competition in radio. That's why they lobbied for it! After the bill's passage, in 2001, Karmazin boasted:

"Radio's become today a better business than it's ever been in history. It's less competitive today than it was, because of consolidation."

(If you'd like to read the blog I wrote about it at the time, you may find it here.)

The goal was to create a situation in which independent radio station owners would be starved and simply die, leaving only a handful of major corporate conglomerates ruling the airwaves. And we all know how good corporate conglomerates are at creating cool radio, right?

Would you trust this guy with your radio?

Sounds like exaggeration? Let's have Mel say it:

"Probably in the 1980s, there were 50 owners of [LA radio] stations. And what's now happened is that . . . four companies own a good chunk of the market today. And that makes it a better business than when you were dealing with an individual station."

In other words, Mel and the Telecom Act were specifically anti-competitive—and thus anti-free-market. In my view, this makes them specifically anti-American.

Did you know that African-American-owned, community-based commercial  radio used to be a fairly common thing? 

It was, my fellow Americans. 

It was a force that connected people and kept them held together when times were hard. 

It was magic. 

James "Alley Pat" Patrick of Black-owned WERD
This kind of radio can't really thrive anymore. And it's not because it was too good to be true. It's because it was forcibly, intentionally killed.

What blows me away now is seeing how utterly myopic Karmazin was at the time. He was acting as if, somehow, he had triumphed. The Telecom Act had passed; KROQ was (briefly) growing at 20% in ad revenue and was (temporarily) at the top of the charts. None of this would last, of course, because, let's face it: KROQ sucked then. And because of its suckiness, it was already an irrelevant force in the popular culture. 

But he was acting as if he had won.

As he said, "There aren't very many minuses to consolidation, in all candor. As an owner, there have been all kinds of benefits. I don't know what the negative would be."

It's almost impossible to imagine how a person could be so out of touch with reality. Within just a few years, Karmazin would be jumping ship from terrestrial radio, as it swiftly (and predictably) began to bleed listeners after the devastation of 1996. 

The problem was that this man did not view radio as a publicly owned asset, or a source of meaningful communication. He viewed it as a vehicle for advertising. He's not unique. All corporate radio owners, to my knowledge, view radio as a means of selling advertising. Thus, their customers are not listeners, but the companies who buy ads. In their view, they are not in the broadcasting business—they are in the advertising business. As Karmazin put it in 2001, "If we're going to be in the advertising business, we want to be in the radio business." This may seem like an esoteric distinction, but it actually changes everything.

I worked in newspapers for years, so I know about this distinction. Newspapers have struggled with the same economic challenges (and far, far worse) as radio. But I never worked at a paper, or even heard of a legitimate paper, that viewed the advertiser as its customer. I never heard of a paper that considered itself to be in the advertising business. Newspaper publishers and editors take a lot of pride in being publishers. And no matter how idiotic or self-delusional they may be, they always seem to believe that they are serving the public good, and performing a kind of American sacrament. 

I believe that this essential idea, the notion of a common need for a free press, will survive the tumult of our times. Even if all print papers eventually die, this drive will survive. The desire for a free press is in our DNA as Americans.

Corporate radio owners have no such commitment. Conglomerates do not view radio as sacred in any way, and they are very open about the fact that radio listeners are not their main concern. We the People own the radio waves, and allow corporations to squat on them and make millions off them. But it is not their main goal to serve us. It is their main goal to serve advertisers. 

And so perhaps you can understand the irony that this man, a man who contributed to the demise of quality American radio, is now helming the "alternative" or "backlash" to terrestrial radio. The man who bragged in 2001, "If we're going to be in the advertising business, we want to be in the radio business," is now bragging to Forbes, "We also aren’t running the kind of commercials [they are on terrestrial radio] since our business isn’t principally advertising. When we do run a talk show, we run it with fewer commercials." 

In the Times article, longtime LA freeform DJ Jim Ladd says,  "Terrestrial [radio] has turned its back on what rock 'n' roll is all about, which is freedom." But that's not quite true. Radio never turned its back on anyone. It's the major radio owners who did. People like Mel Karmazin. If Karmazin wanted to ruin FM radio to pave the way for satellite, he couldn't have done it more successfully if he'd planned it. 

Give me my fucking radio back.

But when I say FM was "killed" or "ruined," I don't really mean that. The beauty of radio airwaves is that, like sunlight or gravity itself, they are physical facts that no human can ever destroy. If we changed our laws tomorrow, FM radio would recover, and we would all experience anew the genuine magic God has given us in these waves of pure potential.

As mentioned, radio is the closest any medium can come to magic. It gets in our brains, imaginations, hearts, memories. Deeper than anyone can measure or understand. 

As one of many thousands of listeners whose life was transformed and expanded by great radio as a child, I asked old Mel Karmazin: "What do you say to people who say radio has a different feel now, that it's not as good?" This was his answer:

"To people who say that radio has a different feel than it used to, I say to them: Get a life . . . Instead of bitching about it, just shut the radio if they don't like it."

 In fact, that is precisely what everyone did. 

Me? I still listen to FM, and AM, every day. I'll never give up on real radio. 

It has something satellite will never have. It is local. It is in my hometown. It sounds great, not like digital donkeyshit. It's real.

You don't just walk away from true love.

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