In her chart-topping single “Complicated,” Avril Lavigne sings, “Why do you have to go and make things so complicated?” For Avril fans interested in hearing this song, things aren’t complicated at all. In fact, catching the single is as easy as tuning into any local “hit music” station and waiting a few minutes. Getting tired of the song? Don’t bother changing the station. The other guys are playing it too. It turns out that the only complicated thing about the single is trying to avoid it.
Following the passage of the Telecommunications Act in 1996, which eased restrictions on station ownership, radio broadcasting has become increasingly dominated by large corporate entities. This shift has translated into less diversity, shorter playlists, and a staggering amount of repetition. One of the biggest offenders is Clear Channel Communications, which controls more than half of all popular music stations, as well as almost two-thirds of rock stations across the country. Ten Clear Channel stations can be received in New Haven alone, including KC101 (101.3), The River (105.9), Radio 104 (104.1), and KISS (95.7).
If you think this doesn’t affect your listening choices, just compare the playlists of three of these stations. All share seven of the same songs in their 10 most frequently played singles of the day. And, despite the tens of thousands of songs available to them, daily playlists for each rarely exceed a small fraction of these titles.
These limited playlists and virtual control of the airwaves allow companies like Clear Channel to effectively dictate the shape and progress of popular music. As one record executive explained in June, “You can’t have a hit record without Clear Channel.” This situation is made all the more troubling by the fact that Clear Channel is also the largest owner of concert venues and promotions in the country. Lesser-known artists already suffering from lack of airplay are now being virtually pushed off stages in favor of the company’s favored few, leaving little room for fan input.
Clear Channel has exercised its power in other ways as well. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, the company issued a list of songs it deemed unsuitable. While some choices (Soundgarden’s “Blow up the Outside World”) made more sense than others (Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge over Troubled Water”), the fact remains that Clear Channel used its dominance to determine how we, as music listeners, should best respond to a national tragedy.
So what are the options for those of us yearning for radio that is a bit more “complicated”? According to Steve Smith, production director of Clear Channel, we don’t have any. In a recent letter, Smith stated “If you are actually looking for a station that will play [more esoteric artists], then look for your closest college radio station. Give them a good listen. I guarantee you that after 30 minutes of pure hell, you will switch back to a Clear Channel Radio station because we play the hits.”
An interesting statement, considering Clear Channel’s practices are largely responsible for creating most of the “hits” they play.
As a fan of music and of musical diversity, I urge you to call Smith’s bluff. There are several excellent college radio stations within range of campus, and some, like WYBC (1340 AM) and WNHU (88.7), come in as strong as the corporate stations. If you have the money, consider investing in satellite radio, which is often commercial-free and cycles through playlists as large as 2 million titles. You may find yourself pleasantly surprised to discover a great song from an artist you’ve never heard of.
Clear Channel’s company motto reads, “How many ways has Clear Channel reached you today.” As the monopolization of radio continues, the answer is in more and more ways than you could imagine. There is hope, though. By exploring the edges of the dial and exercising your listening options, you can send your own signal to the executives who are trying to dictate your musical tastes: Yes, you have reached us today. And we are tuning you out.
David Grimm is a fifth-year graduate student in the Department of Genetics. His columns will appear on alternate Wednesdays.