Media experts, lawmakers and watchdog groups across the country are waiting. In the coming weeks, maybe even just days, the Federal Communications Commission will decide whether to relax its cross-ownership rules for radio, television and newspapers. The rules currently limit the number of television and radio stations one company can own in a given media market. And in the nation's biggest markets, owning both a newspaper and television station in the same city is banned.
"The rules have been in place for decades, but over the last couple of decades they've been getting relaxed more and more, allowing people to own more stations and cross-own more properties," says Matt Wood, policy director for the nonpartisan group Free Press, which works to promote diversity in media ownership. "While the broadcasters talk about having efficiencies and synergies from [cross-ownership], we see that taking away voices and actually decreasing the amount of news produced in the community."
But FCC chairman Julius Genachowski has signaled he is ready to relax the rules even more, possibly even tossing them out altogether. Last year he brought a new plan to the FCC's four commissioners meant to eliminate "outdated prohibitions on newspaper, radio and TV cross-ownership," according to a statement from the agency that appeared in The New York Times. By December, a vote from the commission on the plan seemed imminent, until groups like Free Press pushed back.
"We feel that the more nationally owned stations there are, and the more of them that are owned by one person, you easily lose a lot of representation of that community on the airwaves that really belong to all of us," Wood says.
Fueling fears is speculation that the rule change is a giveaway to media mogul Rupert Murdoch, whose company News Corp. could scoop up the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune.
"For a long time [News Corp.] has needed waivers to own both the New York Post and two TV stations in New York. Changing the rules in some of the ways that have been contemplated by this chairman of the FCC would make it much easier," says Wood.
Media experts like Wood are concerned because they've been through deregulation before, with dramatic results.
In 1996, Congress passed its first major telecommunications overhaul in decades - a massive piece of legislation that addressed everything from long-distance carriers to the Internet. But it was a small part of the 1996 Telecommunications Act that would end up having a profound impact on radio stations in Madison and across the country. The act allowed Congress to set new rules for the Federal Communications Commission that eliminated the national ownership cap for radio stations, which had been in place for 60 years.
"Things started to change in Madison almost immediately," recalls Glen Gardner, who now owns a consulting firm in New England. In the mid-'90s, Gardner was working as a program director for a company called Mid-continent Broadcasting in Madison, which owned WTSO and Z104.
"We were summoned into our lobby and told, 'Well, you are no longer owned by Mid-continent Broadcasting, you are now owned by who used to be your competition.'"
The stations were eventually sold to the radio group Clear Channel, which also acquired WIBA, WXXM (92.1 the Mic), WTSO and WMAD (Star Country 96).
Christopher Terry, a lecturer for media law and policy courses at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, says it didn't take long after 1996 for Madison to transform from a radio market with "a bunch of mom-and-pops" to one dominated by large media companies like Clear Channel, Midwest Family Broadcasting and Entercom.
"Small mom-and-pop stations saw the writing on the wall. They just sold out," Terry says. "And you lose a lot of minority and women owners in that initial shift."
According to Terry, the FCC never did an assessment of station ownership before 1996, so there is no concrete data showing exactly how much consolidation has happened in the years since. But he believes the change has been monumental. "The largest owner in '96 had 68 stations, if I remember correctly," he says. "Clear Channel, depending on how you count them, has around 1,200. Cumulus has in the neighborhood of 500."
Terry says the consolidation of ownership has also led to a consolidation of programming. "Radio is substantially less local than it was. The programming formats are very cookie-cutter. And you don't have to look any further than the Clear Channel stations in Madison and Milwaukee to see the relationship - you have Vicki McKenna on in Madison, you have her on in Milwaukee. Milwaukee and Madison are sharing a general manager now. Pure and simple, it's consolidation at its core."
Clear Channel may own just under 9% of the stations in the country, but according to Terry, the company provides programming for about 5,000 stations - nearly half of all the commercial radio stations in operation.
"That's why they're such a dominant player in the radio market," he says.
Gardner was working at the Midwest Family Broadcasting station WTDY-AM (now WOZN) when Clear Channel began pushing into the Madison market.
"WTDY at that point had Rush Limbaugh and a bunch of other nationally syndicated, very popular talk shows on," he says. "When Clear Channel bought the syndicator that syndicates all those shows, immediately WTDY was notified that that programming would then be moving to WIBA. So WTDY, which was fairly successful at what it was doing - it was live in the morning, it was live in the afternoon, it had some very popular syndicated stuff in the middle - all that was taken away, boom! Clear Channel bought the radio stations, bought the syndicator and bought the talk shows. That was a pretty dramatic shift."
With cross-ownership rules now on the line, another shift could be on the way. Despite the public outcry that put December's FCC vote on hold, Wood believes the agency still wants to see the rules relaxed.
An FCC spokesperson could not comment on any details of the plan before commissioners, but says that it will be voted on soon.
Those who support relaxing cross-ownership rules say the move will make struggling newspapers and broadcast stations stronger and help ensure that they can continue to compete with the Internet.
The Twin Cities newspaper Star Tribune recently opined that the real threat to local journalism is new technology.
"Many U.S. newspapers have lost circulation and cut staff. A few have cut back on the number of days they publish print editions or even have ceased publication.... In order to continue to invest in covering the communities they serve, for-profit media companies need to attract investment. Allowing more cross-media ownership would increase the number of potential investors in quality journalism."
But Gardner says a similar argument was used leading up to the 1996 Telecommunications Act.
"Radio was not doing particularly well. There would be more diversity in programming because the industry would be healthier, there would be more signals made available, and there would be more programming on those signals."
He says the opposite happened. And as programming choices continue to become less diverse, he's now looking to the very place traditional media owners fear - the Internet - to bring the "mom and pop" back to media.
"I do see it turning around...in what the Internet can offer and what other sources of audio programming can bring to the plate. That can be very mom-and-pop, and it is at this point," says Gardner. "I think the technology now is phenomenal, and I think it allows a lot more access."
Still, he looks back on the old days in radio with a mix of nostalgia and pride.
"You're not going to see it ever go back to the way it was. It makes me feel extremely fortunate that I got to do it back then because I don't think there was any more fun in the world."
Amy Barrilleaux is a former news director at WTDY.