Editor's Notebook: Who really chooses what we read, hear and see?

Dec 1, 2003

Peggy Boyer Long
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues

We open this eighth annual arts issue with a question. Several, really. None easily answered. 

The essential one is this: Are we ceding our right to decide what we will read in the privacy of our homes, what we will hear on our car radios or what we will see in theaters and galleries to that so-called most-democratic of forces, the marketplace? 

This is not a new question. And perhaps now personal choice is down to a matter of degree. Yet while Illinois Issues’ staff was brainstorming approaches to this edition early in the summer, we decided it warranted a closer look. What we read, hear and see affects what we think. 

It affects, fundamentally, who we are. The question was naturally on our minds because the Federal Communications Commission had just voted to allow even greater concentration of ownership in news and entertainment operations. The stunning public backlash to that decision was not yet on the horizon.

As we go to press, Congress, under some pressure, is revisiting the issue of media ownership. But whatever the outcome of that deregulatory debate, it is merely the latest mile marker in what seems an unstoppable trend across all artistic and informational forms: the vertical integration — and standardization — of the nation’s creative and intellectual enterprises. 

The most striking news about the commission’s rule changes was the outcry they caused. In truth, the policy landscape had not changed much. It’s possible the political landscape has. 

Still, public officials often find themselves running to catch up with technological and social changes that have far greater reach than, say, the 10 percent difference in national audience share television networks may rightfully own. The parameters of the official debate have been drawn, in part, around keeping the current cap or lifting it. 

Meanwhile, the business of business, including economy of scale, technology and efficient practices, keeps on getting on. 

But if the business of business is business, as they say, how will the new, or the nonconforming, or the less profitable perspectives find their place in our cultural mix? And how will we find them? 

To get at this, we decided to focus on books and radio, two of the most intimate communication forms. 

Among our discoveries in researching the consolidation of radio ownership, for instance, was the reality that corporate executives, an increasingly smaller number of them, now control a growing number musical artists, as well performance venues and distribution outlets. And more of these executives consider art, culture, even the news, as mere products to be bought and sold like so many bars of soap or boxes of cereal. But perhaps radio execs are just more upfront, more clear about their mission. 

No question, Clear Channel Communications Inc. knows its mission. The company, which now owns more radio stations than any other company in the country, has been gobbling up assets since the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 helped open the way. Reporter Aaron Chambers writes that Clear Channel owns more than 1,200 stations, including 16 in Illinois. It dominates the radio dial in many cities. And its efficiency in standardizing music “play lists” and talk programming while segmenting advertising markets is breathtaking. 

Lowry Mays, Clear Channel founder and chief executive officer, told Fortune magazine earlier this year: “We’re not in the business of providing news and information. We’re not in the business of providing well-researched music. We’re simply in the business of selling our customers products.”

Critics charge that in the process Clear Channel has managed to destroy what was once special about radio: programming that was produced in the neighborhood — for the neighborhood. 

Essayist Dan Guillory, after visiting his local Wal-Mart for his piece, concludes that books, too, are now part of a national business culture. 

“At some point,” he writes, “an executive, not an author or artist, will call the shots.” 

But Guillory, who makes his living writing and teaching about books, argues they aren’t like TV dinners and microwave popcorn. Books, he believes, “become intimate features of the consumer’s mind and personality, so their availability and diversity makes a crucial difference in the quality of life.”

Reading may no longer be at the center of our culture, and memories of evenings spent with the family gathered around the radio have slipped into nostalgia, but there are signs that books, music and art will always be something more than fast food for the brain. 

The public’s challenge to the FCC rules are one. The successful movement to pressure the feds to license low-power FM radio stations is another. The work commissioned by the state’s Art-in-Architecture program, which we highlight in this issue, is yet another.

And it is possible, Guillory argues, to get better access to good books. “Yet nothing will change,” he writes, “unless reading habits change first.”

Nothing will change unless we demand and make better choices. 

 

Peggy Boyer Long can be reached at Peggyboy@aol.com.

 

Illinois Issues, December 2003