On June 2, 2003, the Federal Communications Commission voted to give media conglomerates the green light to buy up hundreds of media outlets and have greater control over what the American public sees on television, hears on radio and reads in newspapers.
Under the new rules of media ownership: one company can own both a broadcast station and a newspaper in all but the smallest markets; one company can own as many as three television stations in the largest markets; and control the flow of information to 45% of the nation’s viewers. Naturally, critics of consolidation fear the elimination of diversity, localism and competition.
Nowhere is the impact of consolidation more evident than in the radio industry. In 1996, for example, before Congress relaxed radio ownership limits, Clear Channel Communications owned 43 radio outlets. Today, it has grown into the largest radio company in the nation with roughly 1,238 stations, reaching 110 million listeners a week, according to its website. Its closest competitors are Cumulus Media with 258 stations, Citadel Communications owning 206, and Viacom with 183, according to the Center for Public Integrity. What that means is just a few companies control the programming delivered to more than half the radio audience in America.
This type of consolidation is affecting everything from the playlist of individual radio stations to local news reports to public relations professionals pitching stations, presenting PR professionals with unique challenges as they try to book interviews or place stories for their clients in local newscasts. As an illustration, let’s look at what’s happening in Denver.
Clear Channel owns eight radio stations in Denver with varying formats, but has only one news department serving all eight stations. The result is what’s being called “homogenized” or general audience news. This is where public relations professionals must remember to keep their pitches as general as possible and adjust those pitches to meet the needs of a larger umbrella of listeners, instead of information relevant only to a specific demographic.
In Seattle, the broadcast landscape is a bit different. Three major companies own a collection of radio stations, but the programming is specific to each station. The result: more opportunity for placement and more targeted information and variety for listeners.
In each case, however, strong contacts, persuasive, well thought out pitches, and tenacity are still the steadfast, primary ingredients for success.
Other areas of interest regarding consolidation are free speech and excessive media power. Earlier this year, the Dixie Chicks spoke out against the President and his decision to go to war in Iraq. As a result, Cumulus Media executives put a ban on the band’s music for their country music stations for one month. Seven radio stations owned by Cox Broadcasting did the same.
Public safety could also be at risk, where staff sizes have been drastically reduced. Last winter, in Minot, North Dakota, a train derailed carrying ammonia, and more than 200,000 gallons spilled. Emergency personal tried to get word out by calling Clear Channel, which owns six of the seven commercial radio stations in Minot. However, the stations were on autopilot, run by a computer. The catastrophic incident went unreported for several, critical hours.
One aspect of media consolidation that can be a boon to PR professionals is that with one pitch on a compelling issue, a story may get multiple hits on the sister stations of the consolidated family. This means less time is spent pitching individual stations but gaining larger listenership figures from just one pitch.
So where do we go from here? The answer seems to be Congress. Proposals are in the works to support “live, local and in the interest of serving the public” through diverse media voices, greater competition and the production of more local and specialized programming. A federal appeals court has placed the new rules on ownership on hold, and on September 16, 2003, the U.S. Senate voted to undo FCC regulations governing ownership of media outlets. The measure now goes to the House.
In the meantime, we recommend PR professionals use the same tried and true methods of pitching: have strong stories; keep your pitch short and to-the-point; and use extra creativity and flexibility when contacting the newly consolidated radio programming departments.