A decade ago, I watched the media world consolidate so fast I thought it wouldn't be long before two companies owned all the radio on my dial. But now local radio is springing up like native grass.
The consolidation craze first started when President Bill Clinton signed into law the Telecommunications Act of 1994, which cut most of the restrictions on media mergers. Clear Channel Communications now owns 850 stations across the country, including the string of KISS-FM stations that loop the same pop songs from a central programming robot.
But things cycle back. A private equity firm bought Clear Channel. Last year it changed the name of the company to IHeartMedia Inc. in an attempt to distance itself from the idea of radio. That's so goofy it has to be a sign of a company in serious trouble.
It may be that corporate radio itself is in trouble in this age of music streaming. My daughter listens nonstop to 99.1, a locally owned station out of Ferndale that brands itself to the IHeartMedia KISS-FM format. But I expect (pray?) that she will ditch the station when she goes to middle school.
Here is my disclosure for this column: I detest Clear Channel in whatever incarnation. I think the KISS-FM format is evil. I have no academic, peer reviewed, empirical research data to prove it but I am certain (absolutely certain!) that One Direction and Selena Gomez are destroying my daughter's brain and turning her into a pop culture drone. I am powerless to stop it.
But just when I get despondent about how much control big corporations have over our lives, things start swinging back, a little at least. Just look at the Republican presidential contest. I thought that when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in its Citizens United decision that we couldn't stop money from pouring into campaigns, the Republicans would have a lock on elections, considering how cozy they are to the billionaires. But it turned out that billionaires don't like each other and decided to buy their own puppets. Now we have 16 of them on a stage, all pulled by different masters. Meanwhile, across the room, old man Bernie Sanders sneaks into the race funded by the small change people toss into his hat.
The Sanders-like development in radio happened in 2010, when a crazy grass roots campaign forced Congress to pass the Local Community Radio Act. That made it a lot easier for community groups to get low-power FM licenses. My students at KRFH picked up 105.1 in 2013 and went on the air last year. Now Access Humboldt, which operates a program out of Eureka High School that teaches people in the community how to produce and broadcast television, hopes to go on the air in a year with KZZH at 96.7.
There is already a crazy amount of public radio in Humboldt County. I flip between KHSU (Humboldt State's National Public Radio affiliate), the BBC on KHSU's companion station and KRFH.
Because I banned KISS-FM from my car, I have been able to turn my daughter onto the news on NPR. She finds it interesting. When we listen to the music my students spin on KRFH, we play a game we call Weird!/Not Weird!
Down south, I listen to local news on KMUD produced by my colleague Terri Klemetson. North on U.S. Highway 101, I catch the talk shows on Jefferson Public Radio's 91.5. But there is more radio I don't even get to. The folks at the Blue Ox school in Eureka operate a station. According to the FCC, the Dell'Arte School for Physical Theatre has a station, which is hard to conceptualize, considering silent slapstick is the school's specialty. Out on State Route 299 the Hoopa tribe operates KIDE.
Radio coverage is hard to visualize. But in 2013 a guy by the name of Andrew Filer mapped all the public radio airways he could find, using data from the FCC and other sources. You can find it by Googling "public radio map." It shows the United States covered by what look like colored rubber bands. In some parts of the country, like a long north-south swath from Texas to the Dakotas, the bands are separate and distinct. But in other parts, they are so many and so concentrated you can't tell them apart. One of the most dense areas is our region. We may have more public and community radio per capita than anywhere else in the nation.
Public radio survives on money from you and me and local businesses that buy underwriting. That an area in which the big metropolis has a population of less than 30,000 can support all those stations is great, but I worry it isn't sustainable. One of the biggest public radio groups in the country, Minnesota Public Radio, which produces Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion, announced in July that it would layoff more than 10 percent of its employees. But the goliath, National Public Radio, told the Huffington Post this summer that, after years of losing money, it has finally broken even.
On Oct. 2, I'll go on KHSU to help convince listeners to pony up some money during the station's pledge drive. But all our local media needs our support. There are only 130,000 of us in Humboldt County, spread from Shelter Cover to Orick to Willow Creek to Hydesville. Hopefully, there will be enough money to keep it all running, and enough volunteers with enough energy to fill the dead air.
A few years ago, a student on The Lumberjack newspaper did a story on pirate radio in Humboldt, documenting the slew of unlicensed tiny-watt stations people operate illegally. By requesting public records from the Federal Communications Commission, he found the FCC had sent an agent to Humboldt County to stake out the home of a pirate radio operator to try to shut that one tiny station down. There were stake-out photos in the file. Low-power FM is a lot bigger than pirate radio. We'll be able to listen to these stations outside of a one-block radius. I hope the energy people previously put into these illegal stations will be put into our emerging low-power scene. It is the best way to fight corporate media power.
Marcy Burstiner is chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Humboldt State University.