Anywhere But USA Radio Is Booming

In The UK they're even calling it a "new golden age" of radio as digital use takes off. The number of radio listeners in Britain are at an all time high of 45 million every week.

It gets better.

Some 8% of people 15 or older listen to radio on their mobile phones. Try catching someone here in the U.S. doing that. Listening over the Internet in Britain rose ten percent. Brits also like podcasting even more than we do here with about 17% of all the MP3 owners listening.

Radio in other countries around the world is still revered.

But you don't have to leave the U.S. to see how consolidation has not just let down its listening public but wrecked an entire medium. The health of NPR and not-for-profit local stations are a little known secret in the world of heavy promotion and shock water drinking contests that kill listeners. In many markets NPR rivals the top commercial radio morning shows. And why not? When you offer interesting content and talk to your listeners with respect doesn't that sound like a formula for success. It's the formula that arrogant consolidators forgot about when our duly elected lawmakers decided to create legal monopolies that benefited no one other than a few owners and their investment bankers.

I've been complaining about consolidation from day one. I didn't like it then and don't like it now. I took my share of brickbats (and other more serious forms of retribution) for being an early naysayer. As I have said before, it all worked out well for me in the end but I was never alone. A lot of people paid the price for criticizing consolidation. Some are still paying it by working for companies that are only interested in themselves and not the greater good. That said, it's time to do something about it.

Now is the time to contact your elected officials and pressure them for a breakup of these legal monopolies. The unthinkable happened when the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was passed. It managed to kill off what could be a growth business -- there, I've said it -- a growth business. Even with iPods and the Internet and mobile phones. Hey, they listen to radio on mobile phones in the UK. And Steve Jobs didn't think his category-buster iPhone needed a radio feature. You figure it out. It's not hard.

Radio's big advantage is content. A lot of people used to think it was portability. That's nice, too, but you see how far portability gets radio with the next generation. Since we all seem to recognize now that we are not going to win the war in Iraq -- oh, I'm sorry -- that we're not going to make radio a vibrant growth industry doing what it is doing today then it's time to withdraw the troops. Bring out program directors, GMs and GSMs home to radio stations that will let them focus on local radio -- not radio Wall Street-style.

My friend John Rook, the legendary consultant and fine human being that he is has paid the price when his small stations came up against a consolidator. Rook could not be beaten. He persists today in retirement trying to wake up an industry that has lost its soul and in my opinion -- for some -- lost it's guts. It's not too late to speak up. Not to late to contact Senator Feingold, Senator Boxer or your local representative. Together this industry has a lot of damaging evidence on the shame of consolidation and its consolidators. Offer it. Testify.

There is but one mission now. To save radio -- to make it have the chance to do what radio is successfully doing in the UK, other countries and here on NPR stations that are not consolidated -- legislative action has to be sought to break up the monopolies and right the wrong.

This doesn't mean there aren't some good radio groups out there, but they are smaller. Smaller is good. More humane is good. More in touch with their listeners is good.

And while we're at it, let's ask the FCC to hold licensees to a new (old) standard upon which to judge license renewal -- that they serve the public interest, convenience and necessity. That was the mission during U.S. radio's golden age and if radio would like to survive to see "a new golden" age like the one in Great Britain right now it won't be digital technology, Wall Street and large radio companies that will deliver it.

Small companies that take their public trust seriously -- that will do it. As my friend Bill O'Shaughnessy puts it, radio station owners are "permitees" and the sooner we demand a return to radio as a public trust the sooner this once proud industry can get growing again.