The marriage of the Internet and the entertainment/advertising
industry -- exemplified by the AOL/Time-Warner merger -- is nothing new.
The template for the entertainment-industry takeover of new media
technology was set in the 1920s, with the rapid privatization and
commercialization of the revolutionary technology of radio.
Like the Internet, the early years of radio were marked by
widespread optimism that this new medium would revolutionize democracy and
civic values. In particular, radio was seen as a boon to education and
civic participation. Ditto the Internet.
By 1925, America had 128 college radio stations. A similar number of
non-profit stations was operated by religious groups, labor unions, and
various civic organizations. Two of the most powerful and best-funded
radio stations were WCFL, Chicago's "Voice of Farmer-Labor," and WLWL, a
New York City station operated by the Paulist Fathers and dedicated to
promoting democratic values via talks on religious, social and literary
However, Wall Street of the 1920s and corporations such as RCA,
United Fruit Co., General Electric, NBC, and AT&T saw radio as both an
opportunity and a threat: an opportunity to reap enormous profits from
advertising; but a threat if the new medium were used to organize workers
To gain control of radio, the corporate allies formed the National
Association of Broadcasters and petitioned the American Bar Association to
form a special "Communications Committee." Together, the NAB and the ABA
lobbied for government regulation of the airwaves, resulting in the 1927
creation of the Federal Radio Commission (today called the Federal
Communications Commission). The FRC soon required all stations --
commercial and non-profit -- to apply for licenses. It also issued
regulations favoring commercial stations.
The FRC's rationale for favoring commercial radio was simple: for-profit
companies had more capital and engineering expertise and could thereby
spread radio technology faster.
By 1932, the NAB and ABA were pressing Congress to go even
further: they sought the total privatization of the public airwaves. The
resulting 1934 Communications Act received little publicity because the
NAB shrewdly convinced the great newspaper chains -- potential opponents
of commercial radio -- to invest in the new advertising medium. Though
non-profit radio fought to set aside 20 percent of licenses for the public
sector, the proposal was blocked by the corporate lobby.
Congress tossed a crumb to the law's critics by requiring
license-holders to "serve the public interest, convenience and necessity."
With the playing-field tilted heavily in favor of commercial
radio, and the Great Depression underway, non-profit radio soon
disappeared. Not until passage of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967,
which laid the groundwork for public TV and public radio, did non-profit
broadcasting re-appear, albeit in a centralized and non-grassroots form.
Given this historical and legal context, the colonization of the
Internet by media conglomerates was no doubt inevitable. The question
facing the nation today is: Will non-profit, civic uses of the Internet
disappear, as did non-profit radio?
Many will argue that the Internet is radically unlike radio. Even
the smallest organization, or any individual, can have a website, whereas
radio requires significant capital investment. But this analysis
overlooks the fact that a website is irrelevant if it can't find an
audience. With most Americans herded into the pay-to-view world of
AOL/Time-Warner/Disney/MSNBC, nonprofit civic websites -- especially
small, local websites -- will be increasingly exiled to cyber-Siberia.
Media concentration leads to the disappearance of local
information in another way. Whatever their reach and power, media
conglomerates cannot and will not deliver local news and information for
one simple reason: it's not profitable.
This reality was amply demonstrated in the 1980s, when the
Reagan-FCC, lobbied heavily by the NAB, repealed the Fairness Doctrine,
which required holders of broadcast licenses to document how they serve
the "public interest, convenience and necessity."
With the elimination of public-service documentation, broadcasters
streamlined their operations by cutting local news staff. In 1983, for
example, a major press conference in Asheville could attract reporters
from three TVstations and four or five radio stations. Today, only one
radio station-- WWNC -- has a full-time news department for daily, local
reporting. Likewise, local TV stations WYFF and WSPA had closed their
Asheville bureaus by the end of the decade.
As a result, local broadcasters increasingly rely on news
generated by corporate parents and other national news services. Local
news is increasingly lifted from the local newspaper. The overall result
is a more anemic local information environment, where fewer voices and
points of view are heard.
With fewer employees and lower costs, commercial radio's revenues
soared in the 1990s, making it one of the most profitable media industries
of the decade. While Wall Street applauds, our children grow up knowing
more about Michael Jordan and Madonna than heroes and concerns in their
If the Internet is to fulfill its civic and democratic potential,
attention must be paid to ensuring a strong non-profit Internet presence
that is grassroots and local. The centralized, Washington, D.C.-based
model of PBS and NPR is not the answer.
One answer may lie here in the mountains of North Carolina. The
Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN) is a non-profit Internet co-op
modeled after the rural electric and telephone cooperatives of the 1920s
and 30s. MAIN offers affordable dial-up Internet access in 13 mountain
counties, free Internet service for 60 public access terminals in rural
libraries, and discount access for disabled citizens with severe economic
The revenue from MAIN's 4,000 dial-up subscribers -- plus the work
of its many volunteers -- sustain a community network that provides free
websites for more than 200 local non-profits, online forums for local
discussions ranging from gardening to politics, and MAIN's online
grassroots market, the Blue Ridge Web Market. This local content is the
lifeblood of MAIN.
are not tracked by "consumer preference" software and then subjected to
junk email and other online marketing ploys.
Most importantly, MAIN's subscribers -- and the thousands of
citizens who rely on our public-access terminals -- comprise a ready-made
audience for MAIN's local content. This combination of audience and
compelling content is the Holy Grail of the Internet, as evidenced by the
merger of AOL and Time-Warner.
Access and audience cannot be overstated. Building a wonderful
civic website, without guaranteeing an audience, is like building a
beautiful public park on a remote dirt road, while all the highways and
bus routes go straight to the mega-mall. A small number of folks may go
the extra mile to find you, but the vast majority will opt for the
convenience and familiarity of the shopping mall/amusement park.
Ensuring access to local content is why MAIN is also planning to
apply for a low-power FM radio license, which the FCC recently approved in
response to the decade-long disappearance of local voices on the airwaves.
With our Internet presence, MAIN can "web-cast" the audio from a low-power
station, thereby increasing the opportunities for local voices to be
The marriage of the Internet and entertainment presents a curious
paradox: as citizens are overwhelmed by a blizzard of media choices, we
don't notice the loss of local voices. If the Internet is to fulfill its
promise of strengthening our civic lives, provision must be made for
local, non-profit content.
(Wally Bowen is founder and executive director of the Mountain Area
Information Network, which can be found online at www.main.nc.us).
Copyright Wally Bowen, 2000.