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How the Telecom Act of 1996 impacted Hip-Hop

Joseph Tiller
Posted by Joseph Tiller on Jul 25

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The media industry is a face paced whirlpool of information, content, and laws. It is a whirlpool that will swallow you up if you are not careful. The media industry can change in a blink of an eye, where it be a change that only affects your personal life or a change to shake up the entire field. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 was one of those laws that changed the structure and operation of the entire communications industry. Congress approved the act on January 3, 1996, and signed into law by Bill Clinton on February 8, 1996. The act was suppose to allow all communications business’ to compete against each other, by dropping regulations. It was intended to level the playing field, but it did the exact opposite. It created a playground for larger companies to bully and acquire smaller communications and media companies at will.

The now defunct Kill Your Television website was very critical of the law and wrote: "thanks to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the business is about to get bigger...Mergers, takeovers and acquisitions are becoming the norm in the television industry. The new law has stripped down the television ownership rules so much, that big media players can and will be more aggressive in buying out smaller stations...A new legislative fight is brewing on the horizon as the broadcast industry gears up for the introduction of digital television...The Telecommunications Act...highlights include: Deregulation of most cable TV rates by 1999...End [of] the FCC partial ban on broadcast networks owning cable systems...Extends TV and radio station license terms to eight years...Eases one-to-a-market rule to allow ownership of TV and radio combos...in the top 50 markets."

The Telecom Act of ‘96 affected all mediums of communication. Print media, telephone companies, and cable providers were all affected, but this law was detrimental for radio, especially for local urban radio stations where hip-hop was the major genre. Community oriented radio stations were a thing of the past as major broadcasting networks acquired them and forced them to abide by corporate rules and regulations. In the five years following the 1996 Telecom Act, the consolidation and takeover of small stations essentially eliminated independent black radio.

Within the same year of the act being passed, over $700 million was exchanged from buying and selling of stations. Locally-owned and African-American operated stations were almost eliminated. Many of them were bought out by the dozens and reprogrammed as “urban” stations by national conglomerates. The number of radio station owners dropped significantly from approximately 5100 owners to 3800 only five years after the law was signed.

By this time hip-hop was too big of a genre to completely ignore, but they did limit the type of Hip-Hop songs and artists that were played. If you ever wondered why radio stations played the same songs all day, every day, the Telecom Act of 1996 is the root of the problem. When smaller stations became part of a corporate machine, the DJs, program directors and music directors no longer had curative control. Market researchers and consultants have determined what songs to play, eliminating the chance for new independent and local talent to be heard on the radio.

With the mergers of smaller radio stations into bigger companies, the music being played became more commercialized for radio, which caused Hip-Hop artist to make music for the radio and not for the listeners, which turned a lot of Hip-Hop heads away from listening to the radio. The music has become extremely formulaic. Rappers now feel that they have to sound a certain way and have certain artists featured to get radio spins. This creates a lot of artists who sound like each other.       

Radio is still a used and needed medium, but without the Telecom Act of 1996, the radio market may be a better place than it is today. There would be more community driven stations that would provide worthy rappers a place to be heard. Clear Channel (now iHeartMedia Inc.) and Viacom claimed 42 percent of the commercial radio listening audience by 2001. That number has surely swelled by now and to think, those are only two companies. iHeartMedia Inc, itself has 850 radio stations under its control. It also owns about 100 performance and amphitheaters, as well as clubs. With power like that, they can control a vast majority of the Hip-Hop that we hear and the only reason they have that power is because of the Telecom Act of 1996.  

Joseph Tiller

Written by Joseph Tiller

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