The Mummers and the Media

The National Association of Broadcasters goes to Philadelphia.


Philadelphia—Every time I asked Morgan Andrews a question, I got the feeling he was glaring at me. This wasn't really his fault: It was the mask he was wearing, a silver disguise that obscured his eyes and the upper half of his face. He had also donned a feathery aqua shirt and, on his back, a drawing of a radio tower. "If we're not allowed into the mainstream media," he told me, "we need to create our own media. The Mummers are a model." Then he picked a few notes on his banjo.

The Mummers Parade is a Philadelphia tradition, with roots in European festivals, American minstrel shows, and the blue-collar neighborhoods of the city. No one's sure when exactly it started: The city attempted to outlaw an earlier version of it in 1808, failed completely, and by 1901 was willing to recognize it as an officially sanctioned event. It is a day of strange costumes, string bands, elaborate floats, and drunken revelry, all organized by local clubs. Ordinarily it takes place on New Year's Day, but Andrews and several others had donned their costumes three months early, to protest the National Association of Broadcasters' annual Radio Show. The theme of the demonstration, they announced, was Mummers Against Media Monopoly.

It was a small demonstration: about 30 people were there, their numbers swelling slightly when the New York-based hip hop collective Movement in Motion took the stage. Across the street, at the NAB's Radio Show, hardly anyone seemed aware that they were being picketed. But the group behind the demonstration—the Prometheus Radio Project, a crunchy assortment of activists based in the basement of a West Philly church—had made more than one mark on the proceedings. When the Federal Communications Commission revised its rules on media ownership earlier this year, it was Prometheus that sued to stop the new regulations from going into effect, arguing that they would foster yet more media consolidation. The result was one more tremor in an industry that's already dealing with an earthquake of uncertainty.

Cut to Room 202A of the Philadelphia Convention Center, 25 hours earlier. "The legal term for what we have here," John Fiorini is saying, "is an enormous mess." His audience chuckles knowingly. Fiorini is one of four lawyers speaking on a panel called "Ownership, Etc.: The Changing FCC Regulatory Environment"; sharing the stage with the attorneys is Kenneth Ferree, chief of the FCC's Media Bureau. It takes them well over an hour to deliver their presentation, but I can summarize it in just a sentence: It's not completely clear what the rules are right now, and no one knows what they'll be this time next year.

The regulations in question govern how many stations a company can own within a market and where exactly the boundaries of "a market" should be located. When the FCC rewrote its ownership rules on June 2, it made them looser for television broadcasters but somewhat stricter for radio. The revised regs put new limits to the number of radio stations one company could acquire, while grandfathering in virtually all the acquisitions that exceed the new caps—a combination that arguably gives an unfair advantage to established radio groups. There is a complicated set of restrictions on what those grandfathered chains can do with their holdings: For the next three years, for example, you cannot sell a cluster of stations intact unless the buyer is a "designated entity," the precise definition of which is determined not by the FCC but by the Small Business Administration. All of which is moot if the regulations fail to survive Prometheus' legal challenge: On September 3, a day before they were to go into effect, the Third Circuit stayed the new rules. So they aren't law yet and might not ever be, depending on whether they survive the court's review.

Meanwhile, the NAB has filed a suit of its own, aimed at reversing the FCC's shift in how it defines radio markets. And there's an effort in Congress to undo the June rules completely. For station owners trying to figure out what they're allowed to do, it's a regulatory nightmare, precisely the sort of thing the National Association of Broadcasters despises—except, of course, when the regulations fall on the competition.

Like, say, satellite radio. Not the satellites that the big radio chains use to deliver their content, but the satellites that allow paying subscribers to get dozens of new channels. The two satellite-radio companies, XM and Sirius, have applied for patents that would let them interrupt their nationally standardized programs with geographically differentiated weather and traffic reports. The NAB objects strenuously. As its president, Eddie Fritts, put it in his Thursday morning speech, "We're not against competition. But satellite radio was authorized as a national programming service ONLY! It is past time for the FCC to issue a final rule barring satellite companies from delivering locally oriented programming."

If the NAB wants a new slogan, it could cull one directly from those words: "We're not against competition, but…"

The same thought governs the association's approach to low-power radio. Three years ago, the FCC allowed community groups to apply for a limited number of licenses to broadcast at just 100 watts. Because these outlets are smaller than other stations, more of them can fit on the FM dial. The plan was much more conservative than it could have been, and it was rendered more restrictive still when Congress, responding to pressure from the NAB, imposed some severe modifications. Among other things, its legislation ensured that the new stations would be established only in very rural areas, leaving new urban radio out of the equation.

But there was a catch. The law didn't kill the original plan outright. The FCC had to do field tests to see how much signal interference the more extensive proposal would cause, a task the agency assigned to a nonprofit called the MITRE Corporation. The report was finally unveiled in July, and it didn't make the big broadcasters happy. According to MITRE, the government's "third channel adjacency" requirement—in essence, a rule demanding enormous buffers between stations to prevent them from interfering with each other—is not necessary. Once again, the NAB objects.

I've been referring to the NAB as one entity, but its members are hardly unanimous: They represent companies of radically different size, in radically different markets, and sometimes with radically different interests. The association has lost several important members in the last few years—none of the major TV networks remain in the fold— and while it struggles to present a united front, there are plenty of places where its members disagree. The most prominent is the issue that sparked a protest outside the hall and the confusion at the lawyers' panel: consolidation. Clear Channel is the largest radio chain in American history, with more than 1,200 stations and many other holdings. Its market share has sparked a lot of resentment within the association—some of it, to be sure, from less successful businesses that simply resent the competition. But a lot of people have legitimate beefs with Clear Channel, too, and the convention gave them an opportunity to express them.

Thursday afternoon in the grand ballroom, talk-radio star Sean Hannity hosted a "super session" with five industry executives. There was Joel Hollander of Infinity Broadcasting, along with Ginny Morris of Hubbard Radio, David Kennedy of Susquehanna, and Mary Quass of the NewRadio Group. And there was John Hogan, chief executive officer of Clear Channel Radio, whose entrance was greeted by several audible hisses. The executives' discussion was a festival of platitudes, with few moments of disagreement and only two tentative criticisms of the industry: Hollander's comment that radio "has to stop being defensive" and Morris' remark that she feels "a little ashamed" when she reads some of the obscenity complaints that reach the FCC. Mostly we heard the same industry talking points that popped up in Fritts' speech and the association's press packet: that radio isn't as consolidated as other industries, that radio does lots of public-service work, that the real challenge radio faces is getting the word out about all that public-service work, and that when New York lost its power this summer, everyone turned to radio for their news.

But when Hannity invited the audience to ask questions, they started throwing hardballs, with queries about everything from playlist diversity to Clear Channel's notorious cost-cutting measures. The climax came when journalist Patrick Clawson of Berryville, Virginia, blasted Clear Channel for eliminating local news coverage at its stations in Clawson's town. Providing a counterpoint to the discussion of the blackout, Clawson noted that after an industrial accident in his community, Clear Channel's stations failed to get the word out about what happened. Called with the news, the employee who answered the phone told them that everything they broadcast came from satellites, and that she wouldn't be able to air anything about what had happened until six that evening. Fortunately, Berryville still has a locally owned station, which transmitted the news while Clear Channel dithered.

I didn't expect to hear a shortage of challenging questions. Prometheus had "embedded" several reporters in the convention, helping them get credentials to cover the proceedings for a variety of alternative media outlets. This caused a certain level of consternation at NAB headquarters, not because they wanted to keep out critical coverage but because they weren't sure these were actually reporters. A year ago, when the NAB held its Radio Show in Seattle, the Prometheans had set up a fake stall on the trade-show floor, advertising themselves as "Cheap Channel," creators of the "proprietary and quite shoddy Digital ShlockJock system." One consequence of this was that Hannah Sassaman of Prometheus (whose Cheap Channel business cards declared that she had a PhD in "mediational suckometry") was banned for life from the NAB's conventions. Now her name was on some faxes asking whether some reporters they'd never heard of could attend their show, and they were understandably nervous.

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.