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Rogue Waves

A new report cuts through the static on the radio industry

Ho hum, another year has come and gone, and Houston's commercial FM pop and rock radio -- both contemporary and classic -- is still, on the whole, terrible. But is Houston unique in that regard?

Hardly, says music industry watchdog group the Future of Music Coalition, who recently released a report on the state of the radio industry nationwide. The report, called "False Premises, False Promises: A Quantitative History of Ownership Consolidation in the Radio Industry," found that ownership consolidation in the radio industry since the enactment of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 had led to narrow, homogenized programming and a diminishment of niche formats and public-interest shows.

Not so, claims the radio industry in a statement released through the National Association of Broadcasters. According to their research, radio has never been more diverse. They base much of that claim on numbers they say prove that there has been a veritable explosion of new formats on the box.

I called Jenny Toomey, director of the FMC (and an excellent musician), to see if she could answer the NAB's claim. Turns out she can -- most of those "new formats" they tout are just fresh applications of lipstick on the same old pigs. "This is something we identified a long time ago -- all of the data that was used to try to show that consolidation had led to more diversity was simply them thinking up new format names. It's very easy to thin-slice the exact same pie of songs under different names. We all know that 'active rock' might have very similar songs to 'classic rock.'"

And the same goes for "adult contemporary" and "hot adult contemporary" and so on. Whatever the case, Houston's rock and pop dial is very homogenized. I looked through the online playlists of the Buzz, the Arrow, the Point, the Mix, KRBE, KIOL, K-Hits and Sunny (which was then in its all-Xmas marathon), and it's easy to imagine people like U2, Lenny Kravitz, John Mayer, Eric Clapton or Los Lonely Boys playing on four or five stations of allegedly different formats at once, and bands like Queen, Aerosmith or Nickelback playing on three or four. You will also hear 3 Doors Down, the Fray, Staind, Creed, Sheryl Crow, Kid Rock, Foo Fighters, Nirvana, Papa Roach, Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Phil Collins/Genesis, AC/DC, Bon Jovi, the Cars, Steve Miller, Boston and the Eagles all over the dial. Not to mention Puddle of Mudd, a crappy band whose name accurately describes this mucky state of affairs.

Here's what you won't hear on the Buzz, KIOL, the Mix or Sunny -- anything local other than ZZ Top or Blue October, unless it comes in one of their special late Sunday night ghettoized shows.

And we all know how well those work. Great music needs to be surrounded by other great music. It does the Dimes, the Scattered Pages and Michael Haaga little good to be heard between feeble offerings from lunkhead bar bands from LaPorte. Local artists need the validation that comes from being heard alongside the very best music out there.

Why won't big radio play local bands? Is every working Houston band worse than Staind, Creed and Papa Roach?

Of course not. But quality has absolutely nothing to do with what gets on the radio today. Money does. And we'll leave aside the issue of payola for now, as it deserves a much wider airing than I can give in this space, and just say that getting a song on the radio in heavy rotation is expensive in time, money and savvy. "To get on the radio in any kind of meaningful way, you would have to spend at least $100,000," says Blue Corn Records director of development Greg Ellis. "You would have to donate prizes and trips for the stations to give away, hire some independent promoters, throw 'em a bunch of cash and just hope for the best."

Peter DiCola, the economist who authored the FMC report, says that consolidation has diminished the number of gatekeepers you can approach. "You can think about concentration in terms of national concentration or local concentration, but if you think about it in terms of format concentration -- who dominates which format -- as a musician, there are just fewer people out there for you to try to convince to give you a shot."

From the '50s through the '70s, when radio stations were locally owned, record labels both local and national could approach autonomous local program directors and disc jockeys and persuade them to spin their records. Maybe the radio folks would give the songs a shot because they liked them, or maybe they were just plied with enough hookers and blow -- but the point is, more people were making decisions then, and that meant more people said yes to more records, some of which became huge national hits.

Back then, and this still holds true to some extent in rap today, Houston, New Orleans, Memphis, Chicago, San Francisco and Detroit all had signature scenes and sounds. No more. At a recent town hall meeting about the national radio industry in Nashville, Rick Carnes of the Songwriters Guild of America put it as well as it can be put: "We used to have music everywhere that sounded like it was from somewhere," he said. "Now we have music everywhere that sounds like it's from nowhere."

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