The world is collapsing around our ears, etc.
The world is collapsing around our ears, etc. fuzzybearphotography/Getty Images

The world's largest commercial radio conglomerate, which owns 850 stations—including nine in Seattle—declared bankruptcy today. NPR (ironically enough) reported that iHeartMedia, which also owns the billboard ad seller Clear Channel Outdoor Holdings, has proven unable to pay off the $20 BILLION in debts it has accrued in the course of the project of massively consolidating the nation's "terrestrial" broadcasting frequencies.

Its closest rival, Cumulus Media, Inc., went bankrupt in late 2017.

Anyone surprised by this news has not been paying attention. But who could blame anyone for not paying attention to the saga of commercial radio since iHeartMedia/Clear Channel came along to ruin the form?

If you've spent any time driving across the country in the past, oh, say 20-25 years (or roughly since President Clinton signed the 1996 Telecommunications Act), you have probably borne witness to the blight of iHeartMedia's practices, which more or less turn purportedly local radio stations into Borg pods, make DJs into spokesmodels with no programming control or even influence, and assume that all audiences are drooling dipshits with poor taste and a seemingly unslakable thirst for car accessories.

It ought to go without saying that radio, surely the most democratic form of mass media, should not, not, not be like this. The common wisdom is that radio's relevancy has declined as that of other mediums has skyrocketed, but numbers don't support that conclusion. The radio industry generated an estimated $15 billion in 2016.

In 2017, Nielsen concluded that 93 percent of Americans intentionally listen to the radio—more than TV (89 percent), PC (50 percent), tablets (37 percent), or even smart phones (83 percent). The audience has diversified with the U.S. population—92 percent of African Americans and 97 percent of Latino Americans listen to the radio every week.

People are listening. So why is iHeartMedia going bankrupt? Maybe because people don't like bullshit.

In ruthlessly transforming the airwaves to this broadcasting model (which, to be fair, didn't exactly require alchemy, but still...), iHeartMedia/Clear Channel appears to have poisoned the well they made such a big show of buying, exacerbating the general economic ad rate decline by limiting the commercial radio audience to people who simply refuse to imagine there could be anything better than Morning Zoos, social conservatism, cash giveaways, and the same 50-100 songs all their other stations play.

Better said, by Kevin Erickson of the Future of Music Coalition, who wrote to the NPR reporter: "As far back as 2006, our research showed that ownership consolidation led to loss of jobs, decreased format diversity, and diseconomies of scale that hurt the entire broadcasting business. It's no surprise that listeners will tune out and seek alternatives like digital platforms, as well as college & community radio, where they can hear a greater diversity of voices."

There's no indication that the distribution of iHeartMedia's assets to its creditors will lead to increased aesthetic diversity on its stations. According to the article, the company will continue to operate normally while working on restructuring.

Seattle stations owned by the chain include 106.1 KISS FM (pop), Power 93.3FM (pop), 95.7FM The Jet (variety), 950 KJR (sports), KUBE 93.3FM (R&B, hiphop), 96.5 JackFM (variety), 102.5 KZOK FM (classic rock), and 1050 AM KJR (news and talk). There's no reason to think anyone employed by these stations will be fired as a direct result of this news.

If, however, the under assistant west coast senior junior vice president in charge of junior senior executive chairmanship decides he wants to put a new wing on his winter home, they all better keep a bag packed.

Still, there's a chance the company's death grip will loosen and allow the odd independent station to prevail, not only in the public radio world, but in the commercial "space" as well. Until then, let the bankruptcy announcement reflect what everyone else seems to have understood for a long time: This particular version of monopoly capitalism is at odds with the way human beings with brains and hearts interact with music, human voices, and even ads.

And in the meantime, on this ides of March, why not savor the news about iHeartMedia's misfortune/mismanagement with a song you will never hear on one of its stations, even when Bob Dylan expires?

"And I hope that you die
And your death will come soon
I will follow your casket
By the pale afternoon
And I’ll watch while you’re lowered
Down to your deathbed
And I’ll stand over your grave
'Til I’m sure that you’re dead"

Actually, I take it back. They might play this version: