excerpted from Listener Choice Radio Study 2000
by Ken Mills and Sue Schardt

It is difficult to overstate how different radio broadcasting was twenty years ago. A quick look back to 1980 shows how many changes there have been for both commercial radio and public radio.

Item 1980 2000
Station Ownership Limit in Multiple Markets 7 AM, 7 FM Almost unlimited
Stations Owned or Controlled in a Single Market 1 AM, 1 FM 4 AM, 4 FM
FCC License Term 3 years 7 years
Community Ascertainment 19 specified categories, surveyed frequently Posting of community issues and program in the Public File
Program Requirements News, public affairs and public service required No requirements
FM Listening Penetration 54% 80%/td>
Major Commercial Radio News Networks ABC, CBC, NBC and Mutual. From 1975 to 1977, NBC distributed a 24/7 news network called “News and Information Source” (NIS) ABC, CBS and AP All News Radio

Public radio was also different in 1980. Then, NPR received major direct CPB funding. NPR News was still considered an alternative to ABC, CBC, NBC and Mutual. NPR News was trying, with mixed success, to get member stations to sign on early enough to carry the recently created program Morning Edition. Research and audience building in public radio were important to a small group of individuals.

But, over the past twenty years, public radio has become one of radio’s big success stories. In 1980, public radio’s weekly cume was 5,329,100. In 1998, public radio’s weekly cume topped 22,000,000. Public radio news is no longer seen as an alternative. It is an agenda setter for the nation and many communities.

The Extent of Consolidation

The size of the consolidated commercial radio companies is unprecedented:
In 1998, Clear Channel/AMFM had revenues over three billion dollars.
Second-place CBS/Infinity had revenues of almost two billion dollars.
By comparison, public radio’s total industry revenue for 1998 was about half a billion dollars. In other words, the biggest single consolidated commercial radio companies have several times the annual revenues as all of public radio.

The audience reach of the major consolidated radio companies is staggering. According to the Fall, 1999, Arbitron survey, 28.2% of national average quarter hour listening was to stations owned by Clear Channel/AMFM. CBS/Infinity had 11.7% of the national average quarter hour listening.

Radio company stocks have been big news on Wall Street. In 1999, radio stocks with a return of 151.5%, compared to just 19% for market as a whole. One radio company, Cumlus Broadcasting, gained 223% during 1999, the biggest percentage gain of any media company.

The commercial radio industry has seen ad revenue rise for over ninety consecutive months. In 1999, overall radio sales reach at record $15.4 billion and radio’s share of the advertising market increased to eight percent, also a record.

Changes in the Regulatory Environment

There are three primary changes in regulatory environment that have caused these major changes in commercial radio:

(1.) Deregulation in the 1980s that ended news and public affairs requirements, lengthening of license holding terms to seven years and the end of community ascertainment.
Almost all commercial broadcasters feel that these changes have helped their industry. Deregulation has vastly decreased paperwork, allowed station’s to drop costly news and public affairs programming and created all-but-certain license renewal.

(2.) The repeal of The Fairness Doctrine and equal time provisions, except for announced political candidates.
The Fairness Doctrine was abolished in 1987 by Ronald Reagan’s deregulation-oriented Federal Communications Commission. The end of the Doctrine meant that broadcasters no longer needed to be concerned about presenting a “balance” of viewpoints. It also brought on the current generation of talk radio. Without having to worry about giving equal time for opposing views, entertainers with partisan points of view and specific social opinions emerged such as Rush Limbaugh, G. Gordon Liddy, Dr. Laura and many others imitators.

(3.) The Telecommunications Act of 1996 which opened the door to today’s consolidated ownership. Consolidated ownership has allowed commercial radio to be more competitive with other media for advertising purchases. Stations operated as “clusters” of several stations can usually be operated more inexpensively that single stations. Decision making is streamlined. But, often this means that station clusters are not locally owned. The local “family owned” radio station is largely a thing of the past.