It is a claim anyone interested in radio hears often: that commercial radio, when it comes to music, is too similar across the dial, that programming formats don't vary enough, and that playlists within those formats tend to be bland. Now a national study on the effects of radio deregulation lends credence to those beliefs, and posits that the problem may be worse in Seattle than in other major markets.

The study, produced by the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Future of Music Coalition (FMC), and funded with a $100,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, found that "oligopolies control almost every geographical market" and that though deregulation has increased the number of radio formats, such growth has not translated into actual diversity of airplay. Nationally the four largest radio owners control about 50 percent of both radio audiences and revenues, with the top two companies--Clear Channel and Viacom--accounting for 42 percent of national listeners between them, the FMC reports.

The FMC also broke down separate ownership numbers for individual cities. The Seattle numbers show that the top four station-owners locally--Entercom, Viacom, Sandusky Radio, and Clear Channel--control 24 of 36 stations, 84.4 percent of local commercial radio listenership, and 85.2 percent of the revenues in the estimated $220 million market. By way of comparison, Chicago's top four control 70 percent of listeners, New York's, 75 percent, and Washington, D.C.'s, 79 percent, the FMC said.

"The Seattle numbers were really bad," says Jenny Toomey, executive director of the FMC. She points out that of the major markets, only New Orleans was more consolidated, with the top four owners accounting for more than 90 percent of listeners. Consolidation is even more intense in smaller markets, Toomey adds, with percentages typically running above 90 percent.

Vickie Nauman, online director of KEXP, the Seattle independent station affiliated with the UW, praised the report as quantifying what many in the industry already knew. She pointed to the listener survey portion of the report, which shows that the consumers polled expressed a litany of complaints about commercial radio, and now spend less time listening than at any point in the last 27 years. Nauman says the rapid growth of webcasting and the Napster craze are evidence of radio's overall banality, and contends that stations like hers, which remain in close touch with their listeners, will benefit if consolidation continues.

Consolidation began with the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which eliminated a cap on companies owning more than 40 stations nationally and allowed them to own up to eight stations each in larger markets. Clear Channel has mushroomed from 40 to 1,240 stations since 1996; 20 others now also own more than 40 stations.

In what may be its most significant finding, the study determined that format diversity is an inadequate and misleading measure of actual airplay diversity. By examining playlists, the study concludes that almost half the songs examined were played regularly by stations supposedly operating in different formats, and the level of airplay overlap between some formats--76 percent in the case of Contemporary Hit Radio/ Rhythmic and Urban--was so substantial that it calls into question using format choice as a methodology for calculating radio diversity.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has recently contended in its own series of deregulation studies that the growing number of established radio formats, now numbering about 30, is proof that consolidation has not harmed airwave diversity.

Toomey disagrees. "Hot Adult Contemporary and Light Adult Contemporary are not distinct formats," she says by way of example. "Not when you look at what songs those formats play."

She adds that one of the primary authors of the FCC studies admitted at a recent FMC-sponsored conference that the FCC's format-based measurements of diversity may need retooling. Whether the FMC study might alter the views of FCC commissioners, who are expected to further ease or eliminate remaining ownership restrictions next spring, is probably another matter.

Even before its release, the study was denounced by the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), the industry trade group. They described it as a "flawed study containing inaccurate conclusions about the radio industry," and dismissed its authors as "a public relations professional and a graduate student." The NAB defended the validity of the FCC's format-driven diversity yardstick, and said the burgeoning number of Spanish-language stations indicates diversity. They also stated that radio remains less consolidated than the film, music, and cable television industries.

sandeep@thestranger.com

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