Monday, June 10, 2019

Independent rural radio stations struggle; cutbacks, closures weaken community identity and coverage of local news

Co-owner and operator Mark Lucke at KHIL-AM, which is in danger of closing after broadcasting in Willcox, Ariz.
(pop. 3,500) for 60 years. Tanya Tucker listened to the station as a child. (Guardian photo by Cassidy Araiza)
More and more rural radio stations have been forced to close or cut local programming in recent years, which often weakens community connections, Debbie Weingarten reports for The Guardian.

"Small-town radio is fizzling nationwide, as stations struggle to attract advertisement dollars," Weingarten writes. "As station owners are forced to sell, media conglomerates snap up rural frequencies for rock-bottom prices, for the sole purpose of relocating them to urban areas. In a more affluent market, they can be flipped for a higher price. With limited frequencies available, larger broadcasters purchase as many as possible . . . in a race not dissimilar to a real-estate grab."

The trend toward consolidation kicked off after the 1996 Telecommunications Act largely deregulated sales of stations. Reed Hundt, then chair of the Federal Communications Commission, told Congress it would foster "innovation and competition in radio" and promote "diversity in programming and diversity in the viewpoints expressed on this powerful medium that so shapes our culture," Weingarten reports. "And yet the act did not deliver on these ideals. Instead, for the first time, large media companies were allowed to buy up multiple stations without restriction. By 2002, the radio industry was essentially an oligopoly – just 10 parent companies controlled two-thirds of the listeners and revenue," Those companies buy up the best signals and get the best advertisers, leaving independent rural radio stations with "fewer listeners, fewer sponsors, and far less revenue to get by."

The consolidation of owners has led to consolidation of content. Today, it's common for one automated center to feed programming to stations all over the country. The lack of local information and identity worries Dennis Deninger, a Syracuse University communications professor whose first media job was reading obituaries on the air at a radio station in rural New York. "If local radio stations are getting their content fed in from some distant studio in another state, you have less information about your home," Deninger told Weingarten. "Having less information about where you live and the people you live with … I can’t think that’s a good thing."

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