How Many Radio Stations Are There In New York City?
What a strange question to ask on this blog? Or maybe not ...
In Hong Kong, Magistrate Douglas Yau Tak-hong declared that arrangements for applying for a radio license were contrary to the Basic Law and the Bill of Rights in the case of the Government versus Citizens' Radio (see The Standard). In the ensuing discussion, a number of people brought up the "fact" that Hong Kong has only three ''radio stations" (namely, RTHK, Commercial Radio and Metro Radio) compared to the many dozens that can be found in other major cities of the world.
This re-opens the issue of just how many radio stations are there in Hong Kong. In Open Up The Radio Airwaves in Hong Kong, I presented the case that the true number of radio stations in Hong Kong is actually 72 as opposed to 3. The reason is based upon the argument that (1) Radio Hong Kong, Commercial and Metro Radio are organizations which operate multiple stations/channels at different frequencies; and (2) Hong Kong shares the radio spectrum with Shenzhen and therefore cannot allot all its frequencies to its stations.
How might the comparison be made with other cities around the world? Here, I will use the example of New York City, where I have lived for more than three decades.
According to this website on New York City Radio, these are the New York City-based radio stations on the FM spectrum (that is, radio stations based outside New York City in Connecticut, New Jersey and upstate New York have been omitted):
This is still a healthy twenty-six distinct radio stations. Or is it?
The first thing is to eliminate the smaller stations on the lower end of the spectrum, because they are mostly low-powered university radio stations whose signals do not reach outside of their respective campuses.
87.7 WNYZ(Low power television station broadcasting audio only)
88.9 WSIA(Staten Island University)
89.1 WNYU(New York University)
89.9 WKCR(Columbia University)
90.3 WHCR(City University of New York)
90.3 WKRB(Kingsborough Community College)
90.7 WFUV(Fordham University)
After you do that, you are still left with 18 radio stations based in New York City.
The next thing is to list the corporate owners of these 18 radio stations:
91.5 WNYE (City of New York)
92.3 WFNY (CBS Radio Stations)
93.9 WNYC (National Public Radio)
95.5 WPLJ (ABC Radio)
96.4 WQXR (New York Times)
97.1 WQHT (Emmis Broadcasting)
97.9 WSKQ (Spanish Broadcasting System)
98.7 WRKS (Emmis Broadcasting)
99.5 WBAI (Pacifica Foundation)
100.3 WHTZ (Clear Channel Communications)
101.1 WCBS (CBS Radio Stations)
101.9 WQCD (Emmis Broadcasting)
102.7 WWFS (CBS Radio Stations)
103.6 WKTU (Clear Channel Communications)
104.3 WAXQ (Clear Channel Communciations)
105.1 WPPR (Clear Channel Communications)
106.7 WLTW (Clear Channel Communications)
107.5 WBLS (Inner City Broadcasting)
The 18 radio stations based in New York City are either large multi-billion corporations (Clear Channel Communications (5), Emmis Broadcasting (3), CBS Radio Stations (3), ABC Radio (1), New York Times (1)), ethnic/racial minority corporate stations (SBS, Inner City Broadcasting), private foundations (Pacifica) or pubic corporations (the national radio network (NPR) and city radio stations are similar in nature to RTHK). So this is an oligopolistic situation, just as in Hong Kong. Some people in the United States don't like the situation either. Wikipedia has this to say about the market leader Clear Channel Communications:
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the company became an object of persistent criticism. Critics claim that it has abused its market position and has operated in an unethical manner. FCC regulations were relaxed following the Telecommunications Act of 1996, allowing companies to own far more radio signals than before. After spending about $30 billion, Clear Channel owned over 1,200 stations nationwide, including as many as seven stations in certain markets. Competitors and listeners complained, but so far the company has been able to hold on to all of its stations ...
You can also read the rest of the Wikipedia entry about censorship and other problems at Clear Channel Communications.
Why is Clear Channel so successful? There is an economy of scale in both advertising sales and radio programming. With 1,200 stations, Clear Channel has enough reach to offer an effective base across the country. An independent radio station in one city with a low audience rating cannot obtain the same level of revenue to sustain operations. Public radio stations rely on government subsidies and public donations to offer alternate non-commercial programming. Many of the Clear Channel stations actually run the same taped programming and this results in a lean operation. The programming may be boring and predictable, but a certain quality is maintained. This is how Clear Channel got to where it is. If the radio market were completely open, it will almost surely be dominated by a few large corporations due to their resources and economy of scale. That is why there are certain rules and regulations in the USA that set a maximum on the number of radio stations owned by one company as well as cross-media ownership of multiple media (newspapers, radio stations, television stations) within a market.
Back in Hong Kong, here are the latest developments according to SCMP:
Magistrate Douglas Yau Tak-hong in Eastern Court ... had found that certain parts of the Telecommunications Ordinance that granted "unfettered and unchecked" power over the airwaves to the chief executive violated constitutional rights to free speech and expression. As such, the law under which legislator Leung "Long Hair" Kwok-hung, station convenor Tsang Kin-shing and three other men had been charged with making illegal broadcasts, could not stand. Although he ruled the law was unconstitutional, Mr Yau suspended the ruling from coming into effect until after a higher court had heard a government appeal.
Jat Sew Tong, for the government, described the power of suspension as an emergency measure to be used in exceptional circumstances when a ruling created a legal vacuum. He said Hong Kong was not like other cities, where certain parts of the radio spectrum were reserved for certain players by law. The licensing system was the means by which the entire spectrum was regulated. Striking it down would create a "free-for-all". "[Citizen's Radio] have said they intend to start again tomorrow," Mr Jat said. "If they can do that then anyone can do it. That is the difference between now and before the ruling." He said there was a possibility that with nothing restraining people from using the airwaves as they wished, emergency services and other essential or sensitive frequencies could find themselves jammed. "Imagine if there was no licensing arrangement," Mr Jat said. "It would mean that anyone could start [broadcasting] on any frequency and there would be no restriction. It would be chaos."
Unfortunately, even if it was a free-for-all situation where anyone can start their own radio stations, the big corporations will still win out because they can afford to pay for the 30 meter tall transmitter whose powerful signals will overwhelm those from the equipment that an ordinary citizen can afford.