Lamenting The Loss Of Radio And WAWL

Friday, December 12, 2008

As many of you may know by now, a near 30-year run of a non-commercial Chattanooga radio outlet, which has served as an on-air training and proving ground for Chattanooga State broadcasting students, has turned off the power. Many of those station alumni are today well know local radio personalities in the area.

This past Wednesday, WAWL “concluded another day of broadcast activities”, a statement some may remember from The Wall’s old sign-off message used each evening years ago, in favor of dead air.

Unlike the dead air that the station self-mockingly proclaimed as “nooo problem” on one of their many on-air promos used in daily rotation up until earlier this week, it will soon be reformatted by a new owner, Family Life Radio. According to the FLR website, their programming features various evangelical Christian music, preaching, and various talk shows such as Focus On The Family, already featured on three other local stations.

The contemporary Christian music is played on at least eight other local signals, two of which broadcast at the maximum power of 100,000 watts, as permitted by the FCC.

When more than a dozen AM and FM radio frequencies in this market are devoted to niche religious programming, which combined will likely never reach more than 7% of an ever-shrinking at-large radio listening audience; when a 20-year non-commercial staple in this market that provides programming not offered by any other outlet (nor has any other throughout most of its existence) is simply auctioned and sold to a special interest group, could this raise a question of the importance of radio serving the interests of the community?

This in particular was the purpose of the non-commercial frequencies, 87.9 FM – 91.9 FM, originally set aside by the FCC for the diversity of the public.

As many apologists for a total free-market approach to the allocation of our airwaves may regard serving the interests of the public as idealistic or even socialistic, who could look at the current state of radio in the US and make any assertion that those airwaves serve the common good? Furthermore, the deregulation, namely the Telecommunications Act of 1996, ultimately led to the current state of radio, homogenized and largely owned by three corporations. The landmark legislation has rendered AM and FM radio an endangered form of mass communication, when measured by today’s audience size or commercial viability.

Back in the early 1980s, the Canadian rock band Rush released a song titled “Spirit Of The Radio, hearkening the demise of the airwaves. The timely screed was heard on most “Album Rock” stations upon the invasion of consultants throughout the business, reducing music play lists to industry-wide uniformity, and tweaking advertising revenue. Nearly three decades later, any remnants of a soul that radio once had then has been eroded and used-up, like a removed Appalachian mountain top, strip mined for energy consumption. No longer viable, no longer useful, no longer relevant.

What happened? Weren't the intentions of the very corporations who lobbied for massive congressional reform years ago to increase their long-term profits via elimination of antiquated bureaucracy and regulations? Weren't we led to believe that this would serve as a means to increase efficiency within the private sector? After all, these venture capitalists were entitled to do with their properties and assets as they pleased.

But to what ends? Over two decades later, the complete dismantling of American radio has all but unfolded before our ears. An industry that once served as fertile ground for swaths of creative talent and exciting careers now lies in ruins, for all involved: the listeners, the broadcasters, and the shareholders. The end result has been an implosion of the entire forum, alienating a huge portion of its listeners, as long-term sustainability gave way to the short-term oriented whims of a small group of fleeting beneficiaries and “casino investment” hacks.

As commercial radio has lost its way, mostly cluttered with repetitive commercials and consultant-tested and approved music stemming from short play lists, the innovation and diversity featured on non-commercial and educational radio stations such as the former WAWL is needed more than ever. While WUTC (88.1) does a superb job in its music segments, Chattanooga now offers no station fully devoted to this type of format. The sale of WAWL is truly a loss to the community.

Paul Jackson

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