NASHVILLE, Tennessee - Radio consolidation is shrinking playlists and creating a homogenized musical landscape, several singers and songwriters told the Federal Communication Commission on Monday.
"Big radio is bad radio," Rick Carnes, president of the Songwriters Guild of America, told FCC commissioners in the second of six public meetings nationwide. "You can drive I-40 from Knoxville to Barstow, California, and hear the same 20 songs on every country radio station."
Carnes was among several writers and performers who addressed the panel. Most urged the commissioners to put more restrictions on media ownership or at least hold the line on current regulations.
"I'm not against companies making money," said country music great George Jones, who said he and his fans have suffered under tighter radio playlists that he says are often determined by a relative few with little knowledge of country music history.
"But you know, sugar is sweet, but too much can kill you," Jones said to loud applause from the crowd at the Mike Curb College of Entertainment and Music Business at Belmont University.
Jones also told the panel, "We don't need to make a move any further in the wrong direction."
Grand Ole Opry star Porter Wagoner said "clear channel" used to mean a powerful coast-to-coast radio signal like the one that used to broadcast the Opry.
But he said when you say it now, people think about Clear Channel Communications Inc., the media conglomerate that owns hundreds of radio stations and other media outlets.
Wagoner also said radio consolidation restricts the ability of both veteran and new artists to be heard.
"The days of an artist receiving airplay as a new act are gone," Wagoner said.
He recalled how his former duet partner, Dolly Parton, scored a huge country and pop hit with the song, "Jolene," and he said, "The chance of that happening today is almost slim to none."
But Bayard Walters, past chairman of the Tennessee Association of Broadcasters, said many small-town radio stations are operating and viable today because of consolidation.
Many of those stations provide opportunities for new and local artists, as well as local content like news, weather and traffic, he said.
Walters argued that there are 11,000-plus commercial radio stations nationwide. The biggest five companies own 2,000 of those, while the next 20 only own 1,000 stations. There are a greater number of licensees today than there were in 1972, he said.
"There are those that say broadcasters don't do enough, but what is the balance in presenting local and new music versus what the public seems to indicate what it wants to hear through ratings and purchases?" he said. "It does not seem to me that the license says, 'Market for free the music of whomever wants to be on the radio.'"
The FCC plans to use the information from the hearings as it re-examines rules for media ownership. The first public hearing was held in Los Angeles in October.
The FCC in June reopened the hotly disputed issue of ownership limits, including the number of radio and television stations that one owner can have and restrictions on cross-ownership between newspapers and broadcasters.
"Broadcasters would like to see the ownership rules modified so they can better compete," Marsha MacBride, executive vice president for legal and regulatory affairs for the National Association of Broadcasters, said during a teleconference late last week.
"Broadcasters are not looking for wholesale abandonment of the rules, just looking for some greater flexibility," she said.
Former FCC Chairman Michael Powell pushed through loosened rules in 2003, but a federal appeals court in Philadelphia threw them out on grounds that the FCC compiled an insufficient record to justify them.
The 2003 changes would have let one corporation own, in a single community, up to three TV stations, eight radio stations, the cable system, the only daily newspaper and the biggest Internet provider, opponents argue.
They say the change would hurt minorities' access to the airwaves, curtail children's and local programming and limit musical diversity.
Reports released in October by two private groups, the Benton Foundation and the Social Science Research Council, found that radio companies owning more stations in a local market typically do not offer niche formats such as classical, bluegrass and Spanish-language stations. Rather, the larger companies are more likely to offer several versions of Top 40, adult contemporary and country music.
But many broadcasters and large media companies have supported looser FCC rules, saying the current restrictions are outdated in a digital age in which consumers also have the choice of Internet, cable and satellite TV.
"Ownership rules apply in a manner that really don't represent today's marketplace," MacBride said.
The Nashville hearing brought new FCC Commissioner Deborah Tate back to Tennessee, where she previously served on the state's utility regulatory authority before being appointed to the FCC in January.
Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press