With the shuttering of central New Jersey's G-Rock Radio
in favor of a canned satellite-fed hit radio format, I got to musing about the nature of broadcasting in general - and at the fact that, in general, broadcasters these days no longer want to actually broadcast. The perfect arrangement seems to be:
- Get a broadcasting license and a transmitting tower
- Find something to broadcast over it that costs as little as possible
There are two things in that arrangement that used to be far more at odds: the license, and the driving down of costs.
Firstly, the license: why is there one? A little history is necessary - in the early days of radio, anyone who wanted to put up a tower, could. This created a crowded radio dial that carried no guarantees that the guy putting up the new tower in your city wouldn't try to jam the frequency of your own signal and put you out of business. Rules were necessary, and the Federal Radio Commission (eventually the FCC) was created to identify and enforce those rules.
Those rules were pretty strict. If you owned an AM and an FM station in the same city, for instance, you could only air the same thing on both at the same time for a small portion of the day. Also, an identifiable portion of your broadcast day was required to be devoted to news and public affairs. Why? Because the terms of your license demanded that you broadcast to
your listeners, not in spite of them.
Your listenership was smaller, too, by design, because you couldn't own more that five stations on any individual broadcast band (AM, FM or TV). That meant networks couldn't buy their way to superiority (though the same rule was used as a cudgel to defeat some; see the DuMont Television Network
for an example.) You had to program what other stations wanted to rebroadcast in order to have a successful network, and at the time, it had to be fairly popular, because it cost a lot of money to broadcast programs that originated elsewhere.
But, as the folks who ran media companies lobbied that they'd be making so much more money if it weren't for all these darned rules
, government slowly granted their wishes. Meanwhile, transmission costs got lower and lower, so that rebroadcasting from afar became the dirt-cheap option.
Ultimately, in 1996, the broadcasters got their wish - they could own as many stations as they liked. A company that couldn't own more than five FM stations, period, could suddenly own five in a single city. And if you wanted to gut your staff in one city and have a different staff in another city run the station (and several others,) no problem.
And so we come to the gutted remains of G-Rock Radio, now trading as "Hits 106".
Ultimately, I can't say that I can fault them for the format itself; people like Contemporary Hit Radio (called CHR in industry parlance), even a soulless automaton like this. Besides, I've got my own format to push.
Sure, I whined in the early days of Press's ownership of the 106.3 license...I'm a former FM106.3 staffer (that's 1985-1992 for you young'uns,) and for the majority of 106.3MHz's time as "G", I liked the format a whole lot less. It took me a while to settle to the opinion that, as a business, they're free to do what businesses do. Still, a license challenge threat would have indeed been silly, because they were at least fulfilling their mandate as a licensee - in fact, for a while, as badly as they were doing everything else, that was the thing they did best. As long as they were fulfilling the terms of their license, they could broadcast chronic flatulence in eight-part harmony and I'd have nothing to argue there.
mind, however, that they've got a tower in my area and it's no longer serving me
, as a member of this community. Not the "alternative-rock-listening" community, the community
. The format change, in this case, is just a nice catalyst for what really should be all-out rage at broadcasters who do this sort of thing in general.
For instance, earlier this winter, there was a massive blackout in most of Monmouth County, NJ (or, as I like to call it, "home".) It took me a while to find a station that was covering it, and the first one I found that mentioned it on air was NJ 101.5 - albeit with tongue firmly in cheek except for the newsbreaks. Which we then sat there in the dark and listened to until the lights came on, so good on them. G-Rock at least spent some time discussing it the next morning - which is good, because the transformer blowout that triggered the blackout was damn near in their backyard. Now there's zero likelihood of even that level of public service and, if station owners think they can continue to get away with this kind of stewardship, it'll only get worse.
I'd have more respect for it if it were the exact same format as it now is, but with local jocks. (Not much more respect, but it wouldn't warrant banging the drums for a license challenge.)
But they can't do that, can they? They can't afford the staff.
To my mind, that ought to be the rule - if you can't do radio 90% locally, you shouldn't be allowed to do it, no matter what inflated price you paid for the license. Sure, it's a business, and profits are paramount - but (again, to my mind) they should be secondary to the public trust. That's why there's such a thing as a "license" in the first place.
If the public trust can't be satisfied profitably by one company, their license should be forfeited to someone who's willing to try.