20th Anniversary of the Telecom Act
by Alex Cosper (February 9, 2016)
Do you remember the Telecom Act? Most of the public seems to have forgotten about it in 2016, although many still complain about what it did to the radio industry, turning it into a generic corporate fiasco that moved away from localism. On the surface it was touted as a bill that would expand media competition, particularly for the phone and cable industries. What it actually did was elevate the influence of big biz on media, as many regional independent stations quickly disappeared.
The Telecom Act went into effect on February 8, 1996 after President Bill Clinton signed it a month earlier. Buried in its long-winded and convoluted text, this law pretty much ended radio as people had known it in the 20th century. Instead of the public getting stations with local personalities around the clock, the law loosened the restrictions on media ownership limits, allowing national chains to buy out thousands of stations. Local personalities were massively replaced by nationally syndicated shows or "voice-tracking" done by generic announcers.
The result was a short list of big companies created through massive mergers, mostly based on borrowed cash instead of earnings. Radio stocks eventually crashed and burned into rubble, nullifying the whole idea of turning the medium into a Wall Street investment. Twenty years later, the biggest radio companies are billions in debt while the pool of radio personalities has drastically diminished.
If you like high rotation music, in which radio stations play the same tight list of major label songs over and over, along with tons more commercials and pre-recorded announcers, then maybe you think the Telecom Act was a good idea. If you absolutely hate the idea of local artists getting a shot at airplay and just want the national top 10 shoved down your throat as often as possible, then maybe you think of it as a corporate upgrade.
One thing you can say about commercial radio is that it has radically changed every decade since it developed in the 1920s. At one time it seemed like an evolution, especially during the sixties when the FCC required FM stations to mostly have separate programming from sister AM stations, leading to experimental and freeform radio.
By the 2000s radio had become over-shadowed by the internet, as radio began to seem archaic. The industry still bragged that over 90 percent of the population still listened to radio while avoiding mention in mainstream media that radio has in fact been floundering financially since the early 2000s.
In 2016 the radio industry still lives on, as it probably will for many more years. But it's not quite as influencial or magical as it once was. About the only thing you can say about it that attracts an audience is that it's free. People still listen, but not as much as they did two decades ago. For that reason, the Telecom Act was a disappointing disaster for the radio industry.