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volume 3
may 2000

Media matters: 3. A better media system?


  An interview with Robert McChesney
by David Barsamian
  Soon to be published by Seven Stories Press: "Free the media — Unleash the democracy" by John Nichols and Robert McChesney

"What would a McChesney broadcasting system look like?" Robert McChesney, professor of Communications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, answers this question in the third part of his interview by David Barsamian of Alternative Radio. His answer is clear: "Let's break up these big companies. When we went into Germany and Japan in 1945 we broke their media up. We said concentrated media was anti-democratic and promoted fascism. I think we should take a dose of our own medicine."

  Boulder, Colorado, November 11, 1999
1 What would a McChesney broadcasting system look like?
  Creating a better media system would be part of broader social changes. You won't get changes in media unless you have a popular movement that's going to also challenge institutions in our society. But just for hypothetical cases, what I recommend we should organize around, and what there actually is organizing around, are a few things. Real public radio and TV, a bona fide, non-profit, non-commercial sector. A couple of well-funded channels in every market. Community public access, plus a national system of good resources. That would be one part of it. To the extent we have commercial broadcasting, I would regulate it heavily. That's sort of anathema now. Regulation, that's just terrible. We have regulation now. It's done by Wall Street and Madison Avenue. Regulation is how you control things. What I'm saying is, if we're going to give them these public airwaves and let them make a fortune off it, we have the right to set some terms on the deal. It's our property. We're the landlords, so to speak. But we haven't been collecting any rent. The tenants basically have been telling us what to do. Since it's our property, we have a right to say: "This is what we need in our society if you're going to use our property. If not, we'll get someone else to use it."
2 I can hear the voice of Limbaugh in my inner ear, saying: "There goes McChesney again. He wants pointy-headed bureaucrats in Washington telling us what we can listen to and watch."
  Listen to what I have in mind, though. Specifically, I don't want any bureaucrat or anyone going in and telling people what to do or not to do on their show. That's not the type of regulation I envision. That sort of regulation isn't going to work. That's going to flop. That's the sort of regulation we have now, with Wall Street and Madison Avenue going into the studio and saying: "This is what an entertainment show is and this is what it isn't." I don't like that either. Limbaugh doesn't seem to mind that, though, because when you make $25 million a year the world looks pretty good. But the kind of regulation I have in mind is quite different from that sort of criticism. One, I would ban political advertising as a condition of a broadcast license. Political advertising is part of the process that has basically destroyed electoral democracy in this country. Getting rid of it won't solve the problem, but it will go a long way towards lessening the cash crisis that has reduced our democracy to a pathetic status. It's closely related to media reform. The National Association of Broadcasters, the commercial broadcasting organization, is the number one lobby that opposes any campaign finance reform. They will get this gift of tons of money in 2000 for political ads. It's cash up front. Bottom line, they don't have to produce any of these ads. It's the easiest money they've ever gotten. They don't care if they're destroying democracy.
  When you consider how campaign finance works and the role of these ads in our culture, it's simply obscene that we let these stations use our airwaves to destroy democracy and make a pile of money with these political ads. In the year 2000 election, it's expected the candidates will raise $3.5 billion. Where's that money going to come from? Eighty percent of the individual campaign contributions come from the wealthiest one quarter of one percent of Americans. It's an extraordinarily class-based system that is paying for it. Over half that money will go to pay for TV ads. Let's get rid of that money. Those ads are inane. Make that a conditioning of a broadcasting license. If someone doesn't like it, fine, they can give up their license and go on to some other venture. Fair enough. That's an option they have. There's no bureaucrat there. That's just an edict. NBC or Limbaugh can do whatever they want. They just can't run those ads.
  Another thing is, no ads to children under twelve. What we do to children in this country is obscene. There's no justification for it. There are four full-time cable channels now aimed at kids. The advertisers have demographically and scientifically broken down the day into parts so that 1-3-year-old boys and girls are carpet-bombed with ads virtually from the moment they leave the womb. It's an appalling situation. Sweden doesn't allow advertising to kids under twelve on television. In fact, it's such a powerful thing there that when one of these commercial networks wanted to bring their commercial network into cable, the National Labor Federation of Sweden called for a boycott. It was such an important issue in Sweden not to let that happen to their children. We need to do that here. No ads for kids under twelve. What we ought to do is, all commercial stations should have twelve hours a week taken away from them and give that time to educators and artists and let them put on kids' programming that isn't directed by Wall Street and Madison Avenue. We've got to do something, and quickly. This is a crisis that's a time bomb. We don't know culturally what the effect is going to be, but no one thinks it's going to be good down the road to have a generation so immersed in commercialism as this one.
  Another thing I would do is to take the ads off news on television as a requirement of a license. As with children's programming, I would set aside a couple of hours a day on the channels and have that programming be done by journalists, not controlled by the owners or advertisers. To pay for the journalism and the kids' shows, I'd levy a tax on the revenue of the station and put it into a fund to pay for it. This is the way we need to start thinking creatively. That's the sort of regulation I'd recommend. The rest of the time the companies can do whatever they want. It wouldn't really affect them. But it would mean that in journalism and children's programming and political elections, the most important things these companies touch upon, we would have a strong public service component directed toward the needs of society and not the needs of investors.
  Finally, antitrust. Let's break up these big companies. When we went into Germany and Japan in 1945 we broke their media up. We said concentrated media was anti-democratic and promoted fascism. I think we should take a dose of our own medicine.
3 You just mentioned Sweden. Let's talk about another Scandinavian country, Norway. Your wife is Norwegian. What's the media system like there?
  If you're in America and you don't leave the country, you don't quite understand what a astonishing, world-historic transformation the media have gone through in the rest of the world in the last ten or fifteen years. When I first went to Norway in 1986, they only had one television station that was only on five hours a day with no commercials, public broadcasting. My initial response was: "This is horrible. How can people live in this society? This is probably Gulagville. What do you do all day?" Well, you talk to people, read a book, go for walks. I actually found that quite delightful. If you go to Norway now, there's cable or satellite TV everywhere. There are commercial stations. The cable system is thirty or forty channels, half of them in English, almost all owned by the same companies that own our cable channels. It's become a global system dominated by the U.S.-based companies and a couple of European ones that provide largely synonymous, heavily commercial-laden fare across the world. This is what's happening in Norway and elsewhere. There are two things worth noting about this. One is how closely it's related to what's called globalization or the neoliberal project. The project is putting business in command everywhere, denigrating all non-business institutions, labor, government, any nonprofit interests that could stand in the way of business domination. Take the change of television from being largely nonprofit public service stations to being almost entirely multichannel, commercial systems chock full of advertising all run by media giants. The change has been crucial to the creation of global and regional markets to sell the products that the whole system is based upon. So it's been integrally related that way.
  You're getting the same problems now increasingly in Europe, Latin America and Asia that we're seeing here. Garbage can journalism, public relations replacing real politics, spinmeisters and political advertising are growing in these other countries, oftentimes countries that historically have had much stronger political traditions than we've had. They're getting this superficial, best-politics-money-can-buy approach. It's a real crisis around the world. It's a crisis of democracy.
4 What are the points of resistance?
  One of the exciting things is that in so many countries, Sweden being one of them, this is generating a political response from the democratic left political parties primarily. Basically there's been a split in left political parties around the world in the 1990s on the issue of globalism, whether you're going to be pro-business or oppose these pro-business reforms. Blair in Britain, Schröder in Germany have gone the route of pro-business. But many have gone the other way. In Sweden, for example, the left alliance broke away from the dominant Social Democrats. This is an alliance of former Communists, feminists, Greens, former Social Democrats and labor who are opposed to neoliberalism. They regard media as such an important issue that it's in the preamble of their platform. They are talking about abolishing advertising and breaking up concentrated media ownership. Concentrated media ownership has grown around the world just like in the U.S. You have the same problem everywhere. It's even worse in smaller countries because there are fewer companies that own everything. You see it in Sweden. The left party, which makes media the central part of their campaign, got 12% of the national vote. It was their second election. In Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Brazil, Finland and elsewhere, it's becoming an issue. The mainstream parties have to respond. They can't ignore it. They're finding out voters aren't interested in having a media system dominated by two or three companies, where everything's commercial and public service values are disregarded. That's not a winner.
  I think that's the lesson we have to learn from. What we have to do in the U.S. is organize on these issues. My experience talking to citizens' groups around this country in the last three or four years is that there is a tremendous amount of interest. People feel powerless because they never hear about these issues. They don't know they can do anything about them. When they understand that our media system exists primarily as the result of government policies that have been done in their name without their input, they get outraged and say: "What can we do about it?" That's the big job in front of us, organizing around these issues. Saul Alinsky had a great line: "When you're going up against organized money, the only way to beat it is to organize people." This is a case where all the money is on one side of the ledger. There's no money on the side of media reform. But we've got the people. They know it, and they do everything they can to keep their issues quiet. They don't want people hearing about the corruption of the giveaway of spectrum. They don't like it. So we need to build a coalition of all the organized groups in the society that already have an interest in this, such as labor, religious groups, educators, librarians, artists, creative people, journalists, all of whom are deeply concerned about the moral bankruptcy of this sort of media system. Get all these groups up to speed on these issues and try to get it on the political agenda. Get the main political parties, the Progressive Caucus of the Democratic Party, the New Party, the Labor Party and the Greens, to make it an issue. We've got someone like Ralph Nader, who's been a heroic figure in the movement for media reform. If he runs for President in 2000, for sure it will be a main issue for him. He'll put it on the agenda. He's been leading the fight for the last ten or fifteen years to make it an issue.
  Another extraordinary development in the past few years is microradio. This is an extremely inexpensive technology that offers the promise of opening up a whole new sector of community broadcasting for citizens. Microradio is a rare opportunity to provide a democratic layer of broadcasting. Not surprisingly, the commercial broadcasters oppose microradio because they fear competition. There is a crucial struggle going on right now that will determine the future of microradio. FCC Chairman William Kennard has proposed a new set of rules that would give licenses to hundreds of microradio stations. The FCC is scheduled to make a decision soon. Citizens can call the FCC at (202) 418-0260 or email at wkennard@fcc.gov.
  So I think all these things are the beginning of something. We've only gone three inches on a two-mile journey, but they're the hardest three inches. Ten years ago, if someone had told me we'd come this far, I wouldn't have believed it. So in that sense I'm very optimistic.
5 The Pacifica radio network has been embroiled in a series of controversies over the last several years. KPFA, Pacifica's first radio station was established in Berkeley in 1949. They have stations in four other major markets. WBAI in New York, WPFW in Washington, D.C., KPFT in Houston and KPFK in Los Angeles. What's been going on at Pacifica?
  If you look at Pacifica historically, the core problem here, and this is a problem a lot of community stations and nonprofit groups have in general, is: "How do you reconcile a management system with the actual way the thing operates and the goals of the institution?" At Pacifica, unfortunately, this problem has grown so there's a canyon between the various sides. It's become a major crisis. What they have is five stations that have been built up over time through the hard work of volunteers and staff and through a tremendous amount of listener support and community involvement. Yet you have a form of management that's in the hands of a self-appointed board who basically have little or no experience with community radio themselves who have all the legal cards to do whatever they want. They have more power over those five Pacifica stations than Rupert Murdoch has over his enterprises. They have more power than a capitalist organization because they don't have shareholders to account to. They basically own the whole thing, to do whatever they want. They don't own it in the sense that they can sell it and take the money for themselves. But they've got all the power otherwise. So it's a chasm between what should be a management structure that reflects who's doing the labor, who built it up, what the goals of the organization are, and the sort of tightly-knit, very secretive cabal that runs it, which makes no effort to communicate with anyone about what they're doing.
  It's a total contradiction. It erupted into a major crisis in the summer of 1999 with the lockout at KPFA Berkeley. The Pacifica board actually paid a small fortune to hire security guards to lock out staff and volunteers and replaced regular programming with old tapes. This is a serious problem at a number of levels, not the least of which is that Pacifica has historically, to this day, been a beacon of journalism and public affairs coverage both in their communities and nationally. They have a network of affiliate stations around the country like KGNU in Boulder, WORT in Madison and WEFT in Urbana-Champaign. It has traditionally been the one broadcast medium in this country that would bring stories of war and peace, of economic policy, precisely those crucial stories where the conventional media almost always march in lock step and then you find out after the fact how much they were wrong. It's been the dissident voice, the one place you could hear Noam Chomsky explain Kosovo. The concern now is that that vision for Pacifica is just in contradiction with this management system of complete secrecy, of people that have no connection to the stations and no apparent concern for the values of the network. I say "apparent" because they're so secretive, you're just guessing what they're thinking. But in a situation like this when things are secretive, that's simply unacceptable. We're talking about community radio institutions. There's more secrecy around Pacifica than you'd find at the CIA. It's probably easier to go into the CIA or the NSA and ask them what they're doing undercover in some country than it is to find out what Pacifica's board's plans are for their stations.
6 The Pacifica leadership says it wants to build audience. They want to get beyond the choir. They want to expand their listenership so that they can be a viable and prosperous entity in the twenty-first century. What's wrong with that?
  There's nothing wrong with that. I've been a big advocate of community stations working to expand their listenership. But what they're doing doesn't track with that claim. There's a disconnect there, on a number of levels. First of all, if that is your goal, you should be working with your listeners, staff members and volunteers to talk to them and have a discussion about how you want to do that. There are different ways to approach that. You don't just go into a secret meeting and come out with a secret plan, fire everyone and implement a plan. That's no way to run a community radio station. Secondly, if you look at the Houston and the Washington stations that they are most sympathetic to, they're the two that have stripped out almost all the public affairs and have gone to music and light entertainment programming, taken all the identity that Pacifica historically stands for, and removed it. So it gives cause for concern that their vision of a Pacifica is not going to be the vision that has the dissident voices on the Middle East or on the WTO, that's going to provide a voice to those sectors of the community that are boxed out of the commercial system.
  The record instead, from what we can actually see, is that their version of Pacifica is going to be a sort of NPR Lite, with music and almost no or totally lightweight public affairs. The solution here isn't to badmouth or castigate them. The solution is to set up a new structure that is accountable and democratic. I think you can expand audience without sacrificing your politics. Pacifica can learn from stations like KGNU and WORT that have done this successfully in their communities. You can put music and entertainment on that people like. You can also have your politics. Politics aren't turning people off. That's not my experience. What's turning them off is unprofessionalism, incoherence, factional fighting and programming that has no interest beyond one or two people in the audience. The concern, though, is that the Pacifica board has zeroed in on the tradition of feisty public affairs and journalism as what has to go if they want to please the grant makers, foundation heads and politicos in Washington. That seems to be the only audience they care about.
7 What might be some strategies for getting beyond the choir to the congregation?
  Who do you want to reach? You want to expand your audience. There are a thousand different directions to go. Let's say that there are groups you want to reach that you're not currently reaching in the community, go into those communities, get programmers, give them training, see what they want to do. Engage in a process of bringing people aboard. That's the only way you can really do it that I can think of. The way not to do it is to hire some high-ticket demographic expert from the advertising industry who comes in with reams of charts and statistics, telling you: "Play this song and you get this audience." That's not community radio. That's the whole logic of commercial radio. One-way flow. The whole idea is to grab people and hook them to listen to ads. Community radio is developing an audience and an interaction in a community. You talk to people, bring programmers in. That's the way to do it.
8 Roger Clemens, the baseball pitcher, is known as the Rocket. But there's a rocket in your background as well.
  I was a rock music magazine publisher. That was in Seattle starting in 1979 with the some friends. We started a rock magazine that's still in business called The Rocket. I think it's the third-largest circulation in the U.S. It's done very well. It was a lot of fun. It gave me a lot of valuable experience in hands-on organizing a media operation, how you get people to work together and what you can accomplish. What I learned is that if you have people who are really dedicated and work hard, there's a lot you can do. There's no reason to sit around and whine. You can accomplish things. I say that with hesitation, because a lot of time when people say that, their implication is: "Therefore you don't need to make social change. It's all in your court. You can just take care of number one and pull yourself up. You don't have to worry about making social change." That's not my point at all. My point is, you can do things, but you can also do things to make social change. Ultimately, the core problems we face in the media and in our society are social problems. They require social solutions. We should be organizing and working together to change institutions.
9 How did you get political?
  My family has often wondered that. I'm sort of an aberration. I come from a middle-class family in suburban Cleveland. None of the friends I grew up with is political. I think it was primarily two things, growing up in the sixties, coming of age during the antiwar movement. It was an era when the coolest people were more critical. It was very different from today. If you're political today on a college campus, you're looked at like a Moonie, a kook. But in that generation intellectuals worked and fought hard. They were critical and respected. The dissidents and radicals were very thoughtful people. I said, I'd better take this seriously. I'd better find out what they're talking about. This looks like something important. A seminal influence on me in the early 1970s was the feeling that there was something going on that I've got to know. And also a sense that the sort of world that I lived in was fundamentally a lie. It was saturated with inequality and misery produced by market mania, self-love and greed. There was something fundamentally flawed with that.
10 Who inspires you?
  Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn and Ralph Nader are among those who had principles and stayed with them when there were tremendous benefits for them at any point to say: "The world isn't that bad after all." They could have vaulted to fame. But they stuck with their principles. They've educated me and taught me so much. Paul Sweezy of Monthly Review is almost like a personal teacher. I've learned so much from him over the years. Ed Herman is one of my teachers, too. He's been instrumental in my education, not just in media but also in economics. He really understands how markets work in a very sophisticated manner. Ed is a soft-spoken man. He's not comfortable in the limelight. He's one of these people who will never quite get his due. He's been probably the most important media critic of the past twenty-five years. Certainly the work I've done has been following in his footsteps. At another level, activists have inspired me. There was a guy in Seattle who died in the 1980s in Nicaragua named Ben Linder who was a real inspiration to me. I was in grad school at the time, teaching undergrads who were largely depoliticized. Here was this young man from Portland who went from the University of Washington, where I was, to Nicaragua as an engineer to help that country build up. He was murdered by the contras. He was such a testament to me. It's much like the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, fighters in the thirties were for a generation of people who at a moment in history where something crucial was on the line put their lives out there. He's always been an inspiration to me.
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