With the NAB Convention upon us, and much of the talk being centered on television issues including the repacking of the TV band after the incentive auction, the conversion to the next-generation of TV transmission as allowed by the new ATSC 3.0 transmission standard, and the effects of the FCC’s changes in the local television ownership rules and the reinstatement of the UHF discount in connection with the national ownership cap, it almost seems like radio is an afterthought. The FCC is considering some matters of interest to radio, including how to revitalize the AM band, and it has taken steps to revitalize individual AM stations through the use of FM translators. And the FCC is apparently considering changes in FM through the creation of a new class of C4 stations (see our post here). Yet, in recent ownership orders from the FCC, while TV ownership rules have been dramatically relaxed in the face of new video competition so that local TV owners can more robustly address their challengers, there were no corresponding changes in the radio rules. In the last ownership proceeding (which we summarized here), other than making changes to the embedded market rules (potentially affecting only radio stations in the suburbs of New York and Washington), and allowing ownership joint ownership of radio with TV and newspapers through the abolition of the cross-ownership rules that had limited or prohibited those combinations, radio ownership rules themselves have not been subject to any real changes in ownership limits since those limits were set in the wake of the 1996 Telecommunications Act. The FCC did make some changes early in this century when it adopted Arbitron (now Nielsen Audio) markets as the way in which competition in rated markets is defined, but the numbers of stations that one party can own has not changed since those numbers were established in the 1996 Act – even though Congress gave the FCC the authority to review and revise the rules to insure that they remained in the public interest.
While there have been no changes in the ownership rules for radio, think about the changes that have taken place in the competitive environment since 1996. At that point, streaming was something only a few technologically-forward people even knew existed. Pandora did not launch its streaming service for another decade, and Spotify was even further behind – not launching in the US until 2011. Even those few people who knew that audio streaming existed in 1996 would never have thought that they could listen to a streaming service in their cars. Apple was not offering a streaming music service – in fact it had not even introduced the iPod (introduced in 2001) or the iTunes store (2003) – both now about to become technological relics themselves because of technological changes. Given that there was no iPod, there were obviously no podcasts to bring audio storytelling to the millions who now listen to their favorite programming through the multitude of services that provide podcasts on almost any subject. There was no Alexa to bring Amazon and other music services into the home – in fact Amazon itself had only begun selling books online in 1995. Even Sirius XM (then Sirius and XM as two competing companies) had not initiated their services at the time of the 1996 Act – as XM did not start providing service to consumers for another 5 years (with Sirius launching a year later). And the pace of change for audio technology is not slowing.
Obviously, streaming to cars – radio’s most important listening venue – is already a reality. Between streaming and satellite radio, an unlimited number of audio channels is available to most Americans. Even drivers in rural areas with little or no mobile coverage providing sufficient bandwidth to deliver streaming services can receive Sirius XM service, and podcasts and cached content from certain subscription streaming services provide additional audio options in the car. And, over time, with driverless cars on the horizon, video may too become a competitor to radio in the car.
Radio reception in the home, too, is changing. Alexa, Google Home, and Apple HomePod provide direct voice-activated access to audio content that does not include traditionally-delivered over-the-air radio. Here, too, the number of channels of programming available from these services is effectively unlimited. These digital giants providing new audio competition – including Facebook, Amazon, Google and Apple – all have market capitalizations at or well above 500 billion dollars, dwarfing the total capitalization of the radio industry of less than 10 billion dollars.
The competition for radio revenue has also dramatically changed since 1996. In 1996, local advertising competitors were the local newspaper, some TV ads, and direct mail. Local cable TV ad insertion networks were in their infancy. And digital advertising competition really did not exist. Facebook did not launch to the general public until 2006 (being available to college students two years before), and Google wasn’t launched until 1998. Analysts say that digital services now take over half of the local advertising in most radio markets.
The fact that over-the-air radio continues to command a significant audience share is no doubt attributable to the quality and relevance of the content that it provides to local listeners, its ease of access, the lack of subscription fees and habit. But with all the competition now in the radio marketplace, rules that were written when the only competitive mobile audio content was from the cassette player would seem ripe for review. So are there regulatory changes on the horizon?
FCC Chairman Pai has promised to initiate the next Quadrennial Review of the FCC’s ownership rules at some point this year. In the 1996 Act, Congress charged the FCC with reviewing the ownership rules, including the radio ownership rules, on a regular basis to see if they were still in the public interest. Initially, that review was to be done every other year, but as these reviews tend to take significant time to complete, the law now requires a Quadrennial Review. Radio will no doubt be part of this upcoming review.
The real question will be what changes in the ownership rules the FCC is prepared to make to address the seismic shift that has occurred in the audio marketplace. Will the FCC recognize that radio is no longer an island unto itself? Will they recognize that radio no longer is a separate market where radio stations only compete with other radio stations? That is a real question, as sometimes the government is slow to recognize the transformation of the marketplace. For instance, in its consideration of the Entercom-CBS merger, the Department of Justice looked only at the radio marketplace in determining which stations Entercom would have to divest to complete the merger – not considering all of these other sources of audio competition in making its judgement.
One would think that an expert agency like the FCC, which will assemble input on the current state of competition from the entire spectrum of the media industry in connection with the upcoming Quadrennial Review, will be able to assess the true state of competition in today’s marketplace. But what would change look like?
In the past, some radio companies have suggested a lifting of the “subcaps” in the radio ownership rules that limit the number of AM or FM stations that can be owned in a single market (see our article here). Right now, in the largest markets, one party can own up to 8 stations, but no more than 5 can be in one service – AM or FM. Some fear that lifting the subcaps will mean that the big players will all migrate to FM, further damaging the already-ailing AM band. The FCC will need to address whether this artificial support for the AM band is still in the public interest – and consider whether, even if the big radio owners move to FM, that won’t create more opportunities for niche programmers on the AM dial.
A more far-reaching question is whether the lifting of the subcaps goes far enough to allowing radio owners to develop the synergies to compete with the plethora of new audio competitors. Some suggest that radio owners need to be able have a marketplace presence that is even deeper than 8 stations to compete in the radio marketplace itself, much less in the greater marketplace for audio entertainment and local advertising. For instance, in a market like New York City, BIA Kelsey (the broadcast analysis service on which the FCC relies to determine which stations compete in each market) says that there are 154 radio competitors serving all or part of the market. In Los Angeles, they say that there are 93 stations that compete in the market. Are 8 stations enough to really compete in the media marketplace in those markets?
Others worry that more concentration will shut out potential new owners, and believe that new technologies still don’t provide an equivalent means to reach the radio audience. Fearing that new entrants, diverse owners, and niche programmers will be priced out of radio ownership if more consolidation is allowed, some are likely to oppose any change in the radio ownership rules.
Small market radio provides its own challenges. In markets not rated by Nielsen, the FCC looks at the overlap of radio station’s service contours to determine which stations compete, and how many radio stations are in any market. In the smallest markets, a broadcaster can own up to 5 stations, no more than 3 or which can be in any service, and in no case can the broadcaster own more than half the stations in a market. Some small market broadcasters suggest that these limits often leave one or two weak stations in a market – stations that provide little local service. Just as many markets have a single newspaper (if they even have one); some argue that some smaller markets simply cannot support multiple commercial radio operators. Should the more successful stations in the market be allowed to own some of these orphan stations, or would further consolidation in the small markets foreclose service from some operator who might come up with a unique idea that could revive an otherwise failing station?
These will all likely be considerations for the FCC in the next Quadrennial Review. Radio broadcasters who have thoughts on these issues should start to convey those thoughts to the FCC now, so that the Commission can craft the appropriate questions to be asked in the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that it will issue to start that proceeding at some point, likely later this year.