Rebels on the air
by Sean Street
[ bookreviews ]
There is no doubt that US radio is going through a period of change. Nearly 14,000 stations, many of them pushing out huge quantities of advertising - one extreme example I came across recently 'offered' its listeners no less than 25 minutes of commercials per hour - and consolidation of ownership by companies such as Clear Channel and Viacom makie for a 'sameness', bland and often boring.
None of this is accidental, claims journalist and historian Jesse Walker in this anecdotal and readable history of alternative radio in the US. He suggests - and he claims evidence - that big business has had an interest in silencing the dissident voices, and he goes further, adding the Government has had a hand in this too. In the face of this his book is a celebration of the survival against all odds of small-scale independent voices from the early amateur inventors of broadcasting through the community experiments of the 1960s and '70s to the pirate broadcaster of the 1990s.
I recently spent some time in Washington and New York, talking to radio enthusiasts who bemoan what has happened to the medium. Younger audiences seem to be moving away from radio, and the sense I gained was that this is happening not because they dislike radio, but that they are out of patience with what radio has become. This need has seen the growth among other things, of Micro-Radio, and one of the most interesting chapters in this engaging and actually important book draws strong links between popular culture, pirate broadcasting and politics, highlighting the events of 1998 when a march of unlicenced broadcasters besieged the Washington headquarters of the FCC (Federal Communications Commission), and the NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) protesting against the stranglehold of large-scale interests on the Nation's airwaves.
Of course it seems to have stopped nothing. The Clearchannels of this world continue to grow, although now there is evidence that change may be on the way. There is genuine public impatience at the constant process of selling through radio, and now large-scale satellite companies such as XM Radio and Sirius are broadcasting subscription-based, commercial-free programming with a wide choice of channels.
That said, it is still radio in the hands of conglomerates; XM does a deal with General Motors to put Satellite receivers in cars, and the scale threatens to move radio further away from what it always did best - communicating in real terms in its gloriously personal way. "Every man his own DJ" is a way forward, claims Walker - and that's what Micro-radio gives us. Then there is the Net giving fuel to the ability to set up your own station. One day we may all have a radio station of our own - so who'll listen then? Of course that kind of anarchy brings with it the eternal risks of content, decency and the rest. The book ends on a telling note: "If [ in the most extreme examples of US pirate radio] there's been an explosion of drivel, smut and paranoia, so be it: at least it's our drivel, smut and paranoia. These voices come unvarnished."