Produced in San Francisco, the radio program Street Soldiers is well known as a live forum for youth to talk openly about their experiences with gang violence, crime, drugs, pregnancy, and countless other issues. Antiviolence activists credit the program with saving lives by mediating conflicts through dialogue and providing an on- and off-air system of social support.

But after seven years on the air, the risk-taking, straight-talking, award-winning, nationally syndicated show can no longer be heard over Bay Area airwaves. The managers of San Francisco radio station KMEL canned the show’s local broadcast in July after KMEL’s former parent company, Chancellor Media, merged with AMFM, which is now the largest radio broad- casting corporation in the country.

street soldiers

At one time, Street Soldiers was heard by half a million listeners nationwide. And the Bay Area broadcast was the beacon, reaching more young urban listeners than any other. Street Soldiers is still carried in 40 markets across the country, but the majority of these remaining subscriber stations are small, and many are low power. Without access to large urban markets, the show can’t reach the young people it was created to target.

In an ongoing call-to-action campaign to convince KMEL to reverse its decision, a member of the statewide antiviolence network Resources for Youth points out that Street Soldiers was pivotal in disarming Bay Area turf wars and drive-bys.” And not only did the show succeed in making a difference for at-risk young people, it also attracted an impressive number of listeners and plenty of advertising dollars. In 1996–97, when it was broadcast weekly, the program attained an Arbitron 14-share ratingwhich means that approximately 14 percent of those listening to radio in the Bay Area during Street Soldiers‘ time slot (10 p.m.–2 a.m.) were tuned in to the program. In contrast, the music programming that ran from 9 to 10 p.m. pulled only a 10 share rating. And advertisers paid the same amount of money to air commercials during Street Soldiers as they did during other programs that aired in the same time slot on other days of the week.

It was a win-win situation,” says Street Soldiers producer and host Joseph Marshall, cofounder of the Omega Boys Club and winner of a MacArthur Genius” award for his work with Bay Area youth. The program was commercially successful, and it helped stopped the violence.”

So how did a win-win situation become a huge loss for Bay Area listeners? KMEL’s station manager, Daniel Haight, says falling ratings led the station to cancel all special” programming in favor of the more profitable, mercilessly repetitive all-music format. While the second-class status of public affairs programming in commercial media is nothing new, the rapid pace of merger mania means that decisions like this one have far-reaching, ominous effects. Assuming that the pressure for greater profits cited by Haight came in part from KMEL’s new parent company, it is logical to conclude that all public affairs programming at AMFM-owned stations is endangered. And AMFM currently owns 465 radio stations, including the majority of “urban contemporary hits” stations. This is the kind of stranglehold on cultural expression that gives meaning to the term media monopoly”: As Patti Colton, publicist for the Omega Boys Club and Street Soldiers, explains in frustration, We can’t get on any of the major markets because [AMFM] owns all of them.” In the Bay Area, the company also owns hip-hop station KYLD, jazz station KKSF, and soul station KISQ.

For the record, it should be noted that AMFM’s cash flow is robust enough to withstand any costs,” real or imagined, associated with community programming. According to a company press release distributed in May 1999, AMFM’s consolidated net revenues jumped 50 percent in the first quarter of 1999.

Taking the “Public” Out of “Public Interest”

The timing of KMEL’s decision to nix Street Soldiers is ironic given that the general public has become more attentive to the trauma of youth gun violence in light of the Columbine High School massacre. The station’s apparent disregard for the interests of its broad public is characteristic of the increasingly antidemocratic repercussions of media merger mania.

In an article about Street Soldiers in the November 8 issue of The New Yorker, Ken Auletta summarizes a key impact of media megacompanies’ competition for advertising dollars: “More and more programming decisions are made by financial engineers, not broadcasters, and they are made centrally, not locally.”

The trend toward the pursuit of profit at the expense of community programming points to more than one distressing paradox. AMFM’s reach makes it the largest programmer of urban music targeting African-American and other ethnic minority youth. Its stations are free to play “profitable” music that celebrates violence, misogyny, and addiction, but they are not required to carry public affairs shows. These stations make their money by airing the music of black artists, but most have poor track records when it comes to hiring black program directors. A group of concerned African Americans in Oakland and San Francisco–which includes Oakland nightclub owner Jeffrey Pete and music producer Herm Lewis–has expressed concerns about what it sees as underrepresentation of African Americans at KMEL.

And for those of us who believe that the airwaves should be regulated as a public resource, things are about to go from bad to worse.

The Double Merger

In a $56 billion deal announced in October, AMFM intends to merge with San Antonio–based Clear Channel Communications. If approved by the Federal Communications Commission and the Department of Justice–an extremely likely prospect given that a number of similar mergers have received the green light in the past few years–the newly merged company will possess 830 radio stations in 32 countries, 19 television stations affiliated with major U.S. networks, and 425,000 billboards worldwide.

The joint press release Clear Channel and AMFM issued to announce the proposed merger was jubilant and unabashedly monopolistic in tone. Lowry Mays, chairman and CEO of Clear Channel, is quoted as saying: “By combining Clear Channel’s broad portfolio of out-of-home assets with AMFM’s leading portfolio of well-clustered, well-managed, highly rated, and geographically diversified radio operations, including a significant major-market presence, we will not only be the undisputed industry leader, but will have the financial, programming, management, and distribution resources to best serve the needs of this exciting, growing, global marketplace.”

To comply with regulatory guidelines, Clear Channel may be forced to sell off approximately 125 radio stations before approval of the merger is granted. In a wacky episode of double-speak, Mays says in the press release: “We believe the merger and the divestiture of certain stations may create new acquisition opportunities for minority-owned broadcasting entities, a sector that Clear Channel is committed to supporting.” If the divested stations are acquired by minority owners, Clear Channel will receive kudos from the FCC without granting any concessions that carry real weight for communities of color. The resulting small stations will be unable to compete with the media monopolies that surround them, and Clear Channel will continue to “deliver” African-American listeners to advertisers that buy time on white-owned networks and stations. In the absence of any legal responsibility to provide public service programming to its listeners, Clear Channel is certain to reject any ethical obligation to do so.

Together with community supporters of Street Soldiers, Marshall and the Omega Boys Club are planning to file a formal protest against the AMFM–Clear Channel merger. After the merger proposal is given a file number and placed on the docket, the FCC will accept written comments from the public for a 30-day period. (The start date of the comment period had not been determined by the FCC at press time.) In the meantime, Marshall was scheduled to meet with FCC Chairman William Kennard December 8. He planned to stress the severity of the merger’s impact not just on Street Soldiers, but on public affairs programming in general.

“This is a watershed for the future of public-interest radio because of the magnitude of this merger and the issues raised,” says Marshall.

Research assistance for this story was provided by
the Impact Research Team of The Data Center, Oakland.