Local voices falling silent in media boom

The marriage of the Internet and the entertainment/advertising industry -- exemplified by the AOL/Time-Warner merger -- is nothing new. The template for the entertainment-industry takeover of new media technology was set in the 1920s, with the rapid privatization and commercialization of the revolutionary technology of radio.

Like the Internet, the early years of radio were marked by widespread optimism that this new medium would revolutionize democracy and civic values. In particular, radio was seen as a boon to education and civic participation. Ditto the Internet.

By 1925, America had 128 college radio stations. A similar number of non-profit stations was operated by religious groups, labor unions, and various civic organizations. Two of the most powerful and best-funded radio stations were WCFL, Chicago's "Voice of Farmer-Labor," and WLWL, a New York City station operated by the Paulist Fathers and dedicated to promoting democratic values via talks on religious, social and literary topics.

However, Wall Street of the 1920s and corporations such as RCA, United Fruit Co., General Electric, NBC, and AT&T saw radio as both an opportunity and a threat: an opportunity to reap enormous profits from advertising; but a threat if the new medium were used to organize workers and farmers.

To gain control of radio, the corporate allies formed the National Association of Broadcasters and petitioned the American Bar Association to form a special "Communications Committee." Together, the NAB and the ABA lobbied for government regulation of the airwaves, resulting in the 1927 creation of the Federal Radio Commission (today called the Federal Communications Commission). The FRC soon required all stations -- commercial and non-profit -- to apply for licenses. It also issued regulations favoring commercial stations.

The FRC's rationale for favoring commercial radio was simple: for-profit companies had more capital and engineering expertise and could thereby spread radio technology faster.

By 1932, the NAB and ABA were pressing Congress to go even further: they sought the total privatization of the public airwaves. The resulting 1934 Communications Act received little publicity because the NAB shrewdly convinced the great newspaper chains -- potential opponents of commercial radio -- to invest in the new advertising medium. Though non-profit radio fought to set aside 20 percent of licenses for the public sector, the proposal was blocked by the corporate lobby.

Congress tossed a crumb to the law's critics by requiring license-holders to "serve the public interest, convenience and necessity."

With the playing-field tilted heavily in favor of commercial radio, and the Great Depression underway, non-profit radio soon disappeared. Not until passage of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, which laid the groundwork for public TV and public radio, did non-profit broadcasting re-appear, albeit in a centralized and non-grassroots form.

Given this historical and legal context, the colonization of the Internet by media conglomerates was no doubt inevitable. The question facing the nation today is: Will non-profit, civic uses of the Internet disappear, as did non-profit radio?

Many will argue that the Internet is radically unlike radio. Even the smallest organization, or any individual, can have a website, whereas radio requires significant capital investment. But this analysis overlooks the fact that a website is irrelevant if it can't find an audience. With most Americans herded into the pay-to-view world of AOL/Time-Warner/Disney/MSNBC, nonprofit civic websites -- especially small, local websites -- will be increasingly exiled to cyber-Siberia.

Media concentration leads to the disappearance of local information in another way. Whatever their reach and power, media conglomerates cannot and will not deliver local news and information for one simple reason: it's not profitable.

This reality was amply demonstrated in the 1980s, when the Reagan-FCC, lobbied heavily by the NAB, repealed the Fairness Doctrine, which required holders of broadcast licenses to document how they serve the "public interest, convenience and necessity."

With the elimination of public-service documentation, broadcasters streamlined their operations by cutting local news staff. In 1983, for example, a major press conference in Asheville could attract reporters from three TVstations and four or five radio stations. Today, only one radio station-- WWNC -- has a full-time news department for daily, local reporting. Likewise, local TV stations WYFF and WSPA had closed their Asheville bureaus by the end of the decade.

As a result, local broadcasters increasingly rely on news generated by corporate parents and other national news services. Local news is increasingly lifted from the local newspaper. The overall result is a more anemic local information environment, where fewer voices and points of view are heard.

With fewer employees and lower costs, commercial radio's revenues soared in the 1990s, making it one of the most profitable media industries of the decade. While Wall Street applauds, our children grow up knowing more about Michael Jordan and Madonna than heroes and concerns in their own backyard.

If the Internet is to fulfill its civic and democratic potential, attention must be paid to ensuring a strong non-profit Internet presence that is grassroots and local. The centralized, Washington, D.C.-based model of PBS and NPR is not the answer.

One answer may lie here in the mountains of North Carolina. The Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN) is a non-profit Internet co-op modeled after the rural electric and telephone cooperatives of the 1920s and 30s. MAIN offers affordable dial-up Internet access in 13 mountain counties, free Internet service for 60 public access terminals in rural libraries, and discount access for disabled citizens with severe economic hardship.

The revenue from MAIN's 4,000 dial-up subscribers -- plus the work of its many volunteers -- sustain a community network that provides free websites for more than 200 local non-profits, online forums for local discussions ranging from gardening to politics, and MAIN's online grassroots market, the Blue Ridge Web Market. This local content is the lifeblood of MAIN.

In addition, MAIN's strong privacy policy ensures that subscribers are not tracked by "consumer preference" software and then subjected to junk email and other online marketing ploys.

Most importantly, MAIN's subscribers -- and the thousands of citizens who rely on our public-access terminals -- comprise a ready-made audience for MAIN's local content. This combination of audience and compelling content is the Holy Grail of the Internet, as evidenced by the merger of AOL and Time-Warner.

Access and audience cannot be overstated. Building a wonderful civic website, without guaranteeing an audience, is like building a beautiful public park on a remote dirt road, while all the highways and bus routes go straight to the mega-mall. A small number of folks may go the extra mile to find you, but the vast majority will opt for the convenience and familiarity of the shopping mall/amusement park.

Ensuring access to local content is why MAIN is also planning to apply for a low-power FM radio license, which the FCC recently approved in response to the decade-long disappearance of local voices on the airwaves. With our Internet presence, MAIN can "web-cast" the audio from a low-power station, thereby increasing the opportunities for local voices to be heard.

The marriage of the Internet and entertainment presents a curious paradox: as citizens are overwhelmed by a blizzard of media choices, we don't notice the loss of local voices. If the Internet is to fulfill its promise of strengthening our civic lives, provision must be made for local, non-profit content.

(Wally Bowen is founder and executive director of the Mountain Area Information Network, which can be found online at www.main.nc.us).

Copyright Wally Bowen, 2000.


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