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04 November 2009

More mixing board shenanigans at Clear Channel's WDTW AM

Said station is billed as "Detroit's progressive talk," which is fair enough, given that it is the local outlet for some fraction of Air America Radio's feed, about half even carried live, as well as Thom Hartmann live, Ed Schultz on 3-hour delay, and even, giving truth to the "Detroit" part of "Detroit's progressive talk," the locally-produced Fighting for Justice. The latter is paid-for content; technically an infomercial. This week (Nov. 1) at the appointed 10:00 AM time, right after the hourly (gag) CNN Radio News brake, we hear about a minute or so of Fox Sports Radio content, some chitter-chatter about football, it seems. Pre-emption of progressive talk programming by sports programming is par for the course on WDTW. Over the years this has been for live game coverage, as with the basketball team formerly known as the Detroit Shock, in past seasons the EMU football team, Oakland University men's basketball, currently U. of Toledo football, etc. These pre-emptions have always been handled in the crudest devisable manner; unannounced, often breaking in mid-sentence, and very often preceded by studio weirdities such as two concurrent streams in a 50-50 mix, minutes at a time of "dead air" (illegal under FCC rules, unless that too has been deregulated), muzak® or the generic equivalent replacing either commercial breaks or news breaks, and other forms of signal degradation one can only assume are meant to piss off the core "progressive talk" audience, or at least serve as a reminder that the progressive talk community is dependent on the imperious Clear Channel as distribution channel in many if not most markets. Lately, in addition to live sports coverage, there has been an increasing amount of sports talk, such as the NASCAR talk show that pre-empts the second hour of the Ron Reagan Show on Tuesdays, and a talk show boosting U. of T. football overwriting the first hour of the same program Monday nights. Last Thursday, they broke in with about a five minute snippet of the UT booster show over Reagan's show. Perhaps the sloppy audio editing is due to incompetence rather than contempt. It requires less suspension of disbelief, though, to imagine that a typical WDTW listener (who by now is of course conditioned to expect this sort of treatment), when hearing a sports pre-emption at the beginning of "regularly scheduled programming" to simply tune out on the assumption that the whole show has been bumped. This would make sense as a strategy of de-promotion of a radio program. Ed Schultz, for one, points out the difference between a local affiliate that promotes progressive content and one that simply puts it on the air for interested listeners to "discover." On the other hand, Clear Channel certainly uses WDTW to promote its "sister station," of course a sports-talk station, WDFN, "The Fan." This is fair game when done through the usual channels of commercial breaks, but 2-3 weeks ago, on the occasion of the premiere of yet another do-it-yourselfer or "honeydew" themed show over on WDTW, a half hour of that show was broadcast in a 50-50 audio mix with the first half hour of Free Thought Radio. My point here is, the not-so-subtle unprofessionalism in engineering at WDTW points in not-at-all-subtle editorial directions.

Ed Schultz and others have of course pointed out that broadcasting is a business, and that a talk show is best operated on a for-profit basis. I have no argument with that, as economic independence is a pre-requisite for editorial independence. It is necessary to point out, however, that editorial independence is likely as not the currency in which economic independence is paid for. There has been much discussion concerning what changes in FCC policy would best facilitate editorial diversity and independence. The equal-time provision of the long-defunct Fairness Doctrine comes up often, but with little support even among progressives given its bureaucratic division of airtime between both sides of the aisle, and the implicit assumption that there are exactly two sides to every issue. Challenging the oligopolistic nature of the media market via anti-trust laws is another idea that gets much airtime, but with little to no editorial contrast between the five or so major players in Big Media, what reason is there to believe that 10, 15 or 20 medium-large corporations would collectively be less dumbed-down, controversy-shy, or deferential to power? The relationship between a medium-small talk show operation or other content provider, and a medium-large radio network or holding company, would still be basically asymmetrical. The former would still need the latter more than the latter the former, and I think our audio traffic would still get shat upon in the various ways outlined above. For this reason I have more optimism about Thom Hartmann's strategy of distributing his show to nonprofit (including Pacifica!) stations, and Free Speech TV. The distribution of progressive content, like its creation, must become a bottom-up process. The change in broadcast rules that is really necessary is the lowering of the entry barriers to broadcast station ownership, especially for low-power stations. Even given a politically-unlikely (as in politically unfeasible) return of some spectrum to low-power broadcasters, it appears media other than Internet are a lost cause for non-commercial or controversial content. The advertising-driven business model of traditional media is simply too aggressive to allow for independent journalism, let alone critiques of the primacy of business in society. The Internet is probably the last hope for grass-roots communication. I am less optimistic about the Internet's potential for true grass-roots communications than I was when I first encountered it in the early 1990's--a much more "innocent" period in its development. Nevertheless, the entry cost of being "published" in some meaningful sense (at least until one manages to attract a substantial audience) is still effectively zero, even for someone not milking their site for ad revenues, and even server-side netizenship (self-hosting) is within reach of a typical upper middle class household, or even a thrifty lower middle class individual. So, I think net equity is a far more important issue than any of the issues surrounding incumbent (or traditional) media. The digital divide is also very real, and is something which must be addressed.

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