The Mummers and the Media

The National Association of Broadcasters goes to Philadelphia.

(Page 2 of 2)

By the time I arrived at the Philadelphia Convention Center, the anxiety had passed: All the applicants except Sassaman had been allowed entry, and the woman handing out press badges told me that they were being "completely professional." The surprise was that, for all the tough queries the Prometheus-affiliated reporters asked over the three-day gathering, I never heard one as pointed as Clawson's, which culminated with him accusing Clear Channel of being "shameless." And no one at Prometheus had heard of Clawson before. Evidently, the radio industry doesn't need outside agitators to generate dissent.

Back at the demonstration, one speaker after another denounced the titans of the radio industry meeting across the street. As with most modern rallies, the topic sometimes wandered: Several speakers brought up the war in Iraq, and one had some thoughts to share about big-box stores. (No one, alas, said anything about "Mummers for Mumia.") Through it all, Andrews stood next to all the speakers, plucking away at his banjo.

But for all the denunciations, there were a few moments when some of the anarchists outside and some of the businessmen inside sounded like they might have a view or two in common. Prometheus and the NAB would always be bitter enemies, of course. But there were people inside that convention center who were arguing that localism and creativity were just what their stations needed to embrace—not out of the goodness of their hearts, but to differentiate themselves from, and therefore compete more effectively with, the behemoths that dominate the association. And there were people outside who, for all their reflexive anti-capitalism, said they had no problem with entrepreneurship or with people making money; they just wished the businesses wouldn't lose sight of other values. Coming from different directions, they'd reached a convergence of sorts.

For all the NAB's efforts to stave off competition, its members are facing a ton of it: not just from satellite radio and low-power broadcasting— neither of which has an enormous audience—but from the Internet at home and the cell phone on the road, from car CD players and books on tape. Younger listeners aren't developing the same radio-listening habits as their elders, and it isn't just the smaller broadcast companies that are feeling scared.

"This is grassroots culture," Andrews told me at the rally, gesturing to the Mummer costumes around us. Then he reeled off a list a do-it-yourself alternatives to centralized corporate media: not just zines and blogs and home recording studios, but puppet shows, neighborhood parades, and what he called "manifestations." ("I like that word better than 'protests.'") In short, any sort of expression that interests people enough that they're willing to generate it themselves.

If it's to survive and thrive, radio has to embrace the qualities that once made it distinctive; the qualities that might make a kid not just listen to the radio but fantasize about being a DJ. And that means learning not just from the attorneys and marketing gurus who speak at every NAB Radio Show, but from the Mummers, real and figurative, who lurk outside.

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