Sunday, April 29, 2012

Save KLSD: Media Consolidation & Local Radio (Save KLSD/Campaign for Press Reform, 2012)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Save KLSD: Media Consolidation and Local Radio, and I was initially depressed by the idea of attending this one because we do all too much commemoration of defeats on the Left (or the sorry excuse for a Left) in this country, and the issue of KLSD, the short-lived (four years) San Diego outlet of the almost as short-lived Air America, an attempt at a progressive network of talk radio shows born in 2003 and died in 2010, was a major defeat. Not that I really regarded it as one at the time: given that my roommate blasts Right-wing talk radio throughout much of the day and night I’m all too familiar with the format and was unimpressed the few times I actually listened to KLSD. Quite frankly I wasn’t motivated to put much effort into saving a station I hadn’t especially liked: I listened to Randi Rhodes’ show, reportedly the most popular on the network, twice. Once she was interviewing peace activist Cindy Sheehan and treating her with respect, doing the kind of intelligent interview with her I would have done, but the other she was on her own and doing nasty, sleazeball snarkiness that enabled me to answer, once and for all, the question, “Would I like Rush Limbaugh’s style of humor if it were coming from someone I agreed with?” The answer: no. But a lot of people did attempt to come to the rescue of KLSD even though the effort was foredoomed from the start. One problem with Air America’s business model was that it depended on buying access to the air from companies with mega-holdings in radio like Clear Channel Communications, owners of KLSD and seven other AM radio stations in San Diego — and what giant corporations like Clear Channel giveth, giant corporations like Clear Channel can taketh away. Indeed, the stealth campaign against KLSD was conducted so secretly that the executives of Clear Channel in Dallas had lowered the boom on it and decided to pull the plug on its “progressive talk” format and replace it with “sports talk” (there were already two other sports-talk stations on the air in San Diego and the ratings plummeted when the format was switched) before anyone in San Diego, including anyone actually working at the station, knew what was going on.

Fortunately, the filmmakers — director Jon Monday and writer Jennifer C. Douglas — didn’t dwell on the ins and outs of the KLSD campaign but made their film much more about media consolidation in general, interviewing major figures on what’s left of the Left media in this country — veteran PBS host Bill Moyers (who keeps retiring and keeps un-retiring — his new show, Moyers and Company, is fully up to the standard of his previous ones, NOW and Bill Moyers’ Journal, and as it happened I had just watched the latest episode of Moyers and Company that morning featuring former screenwriter Marty Kaplan talking about media consolidation as well as the virtual buy-out of our political system by moneyed interests), Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!, Air America personality Randi Rhodes (the one who had put me off), MS-NBC host Rachel Maddow, as well as some people including U.S. Senators John McCain (who in 2003, when the clip featuring him at a Senate committee hearing was shot, was still one of the good guys, more or less, questioning media consolidation before he did his own Etch-a-Sketch act in a vain attempt to make himself appealing to the Republican base he needed to turn out in 2008) and Barbara Boxer, Congressmember Bob Filner, former Obama Administration official (until he was hounded out of office by a Fox News witchhunt) Van Jones and retired TV host Phil Donahue (who was hired by MSNBC when it launched — and almost immediately fired when the executives in charge resented his attacks on the war in Iraq) as well as former San Diego news personalities Bree Walker and Marti Emerald (who ran for and won a City Council seat in 2008 and is now fighting for her political life in a district redrawn to favor a Latino/a candidate).

Also on the list of interviewees were two people with a direct
Zenger’s connection: professor and media historian Robert McChesney and journalist and media-reform activist John Nichols (McChesney is a former Zenger’s cover boy — I read an article he wrote in Monthly Review and was so taken with what he had to say I wanted to interview him — and Nichols, who’s collaborated with him on some books, is a Madison, Wisconsin-based reporter I met when he was in San Diego covering the protests against the 2001 Biotechnology Convention and who’s been on the Zenger’s comp list ever since), and the film went into at least part of their analysis as they’ve expressed it in the books and articles they’ve written, jointly and severally, about how the consolidation of the media industry into fewer and fewer hands, and the rewriting of the government’s media laws to allow that to happen, has not only shrunk the range of acceptable views on the air (as I like to point out to my Right-wing friends, we don’t have a “liberal media” in this country — we have the center-Right media of the major big-city newspapers, the traditional broadcast networks and CNN, and the far-Right media of talk radio and Fox News) but has virtually wiped out any local content. Radio stations are now generally not only owned by giant conglomerates like Clear Channel but programmed out of a central office, with a local “studio” that generally consists of just one technician in a room assigned to ensure that the station stays on its frequency (the film mentions the example that in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit none of the major radio stations in the area were able to react to the emergency, and a tiny noncommercial low-power station whose technicians were keeping it on the air literally with car batteries became the public-information resource for people who needed to know what parts of the city were flooded, what evacuation routes were possible, where they could go for needed assistance and other stuff people facing a huge emergency like that need to know).

The film mentioned such phenomena as the infamous “list” Clear Channel came out with after 9/11 of songs their stations were no longer allowed to play, supposedly out of sensitivity to the victims (among the songs placed on the interdict were “Leaving on a Jet Plane” and “Great Balls of Fire”) but also very much according to the company’s Right-wing agenda (the list included a flat ban on anything by the Left-wing band Rage Against the Machine), the destruction of the Dixie Chicks’ career when Natalie Maines, the band’s leader, said that as a Texan she was embarrassed that George W. Bush came from their state (she said that in London, probably savoring the novelty of being in a country where the media are far more free than they are here and where the response to 9/11 didn’t include an organized attempt on the part of the Powers that Be to suppress all public dissent, no matter what slimy things Tony Blair was doing to George W. Bush’s bunghole in his eagerness to get his country on board with Bush’s jihad against Iraq) and the big radio conglomerates immediately pulled all the Dixie Chicks’ records off the major country stations. (This had a chilling effect on political songwriting in general; it sent a message to all aspiring artists that you embrace “causes,” especially Left causes, at your peril, and it’s no accident that the only people doing political songs today are old guys like Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young and Steve Earle who are past the peaks of their careers anyway and therefore have nothing to lose.)

Indeed, if there’s anything I’d fault the film on it’s that I could have wished it were more radical — it pussy-foots around the whole question of whether the decision to kill KLSD and all the other Air America outlets on Clear Channel stations was ideological (given that the head of Clear Channel was not only a hard-core Republican but a major donor to the George W. Bush campaigns, how can you deny it? Especially when it was a decision that made no sense from strict profit-and-loss criteria); indeed, I would argue that the media law changes, including the abolition of the Fairness Doctrine by Ronald Reagan’s FCC appointees in 1987 and the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (signed into law by Democrat Bill Clinton as the result, so this film argues, of a compromise he reached with Republicans in Congress that in return for safeguarding the freedom of the Internet they could have their way with “old media,” including eliminating the caps on how many radio stations a single individual or company could own), have been part and parcel of a deliberate, decades-long campaign by the American Right and the corporations and wealthy individuals that fund it (including an increasingly militant ruling class filled with people like the Koch brothers who disdain the compromises previous generations of corporate elites like the Rockefellers were willing to make, and have committed themselves and their enormous fortunes to destroying all aspects of the welfare state, ending all controls on business whatsoever and realizing Ayn Rand’s ideal state in the U.S.) not only to establish Right-wing dominance of American politics but to make sure that that dominance is never reversed.

As Thomas Frank pointed out in his current book Pity the Billionaire, one of their ideological triumphs has been their ability to convince millions of Americans that whatever problems capitalism has can be solved with more capitalism, with getting rid of those few pesky regulations that are left and “unleashing the private sector.” The fact that in real life an “unleashed” private sector drives wages to subsistence levels, either by take-it-or-leave-it offers to American workers or by moving jobs overseas (or threatening to do so), and thereby destroys the basis for any shared prosperity by eliminating the middle class that provided them the market for their products, doesn’t bother them in the slightest: as long as they have the money, the guns and the media to shape the public’s consciousness so that we not only get raped but enjoy the experience and think (as John Nichols said in the movie) that things can be no other way — that God, human nature and the framers of the U.S. Constitution all decree that lassiez-faire is not only the only workable but the only moral way to run an economy and a society — their power will be unassailable.

It’s indicative of the scope of their success that no sooner had Mitt Romney essentially locked up the Republican nomination that he suddenly, almost overnight, pulled even with Obama in the polls — and that the main reason people polled who were voting for Romney gave for doing so was, “He’s a businessman, he’ll know how to fix the economy” — as if the debacle of the past four years hasn’t affected one whit the idea that businesspeople are omniscient and we peons dare to question their competence and sagacity at our peril. It’s also indicative of the success of the Right’s decades-long campaign for full-spectrum dominance of American politics, economics and public perception that Thomas Frank’s book didn’t end with a ringing call to action for his readers to fight the evils he’d spent his pages exposing, but with a grim dystopian vision of what America will look like if (and one got the impression he was merely being polite by saying “if” and not what he really thinks, “when”) the Right gains complete control of this country — and while the makers of Save KLSD did try to end their movie with an inspirational call to action, it’s indicative that they literally had to go back to Bobby Kennedy to find a political figure who embodied their call to justice and the belief that a better world than Ayn Rand’s Libertarian dys/utopia is still possible.