"Big radio is bad radio," said country music songwriter Rick Carnes, president of the Songwriters Guild of America, testifying at the second of six FCC public hearings being held nationwide. "You can drive I-40 from Knoxville to Barstow, California, and hear the same 20 songs on every country radio station."
Carnes was among several writers and performers who addressed the panel. Most urged the commissioners to put more restrictions on media ownership or at least hold the line on current regulations.
"I'm not against companies making money," said country music great George Jones, who said he and his fans have suffered under tighter radio playlists that he says are often determined by a relative few with little knowledge of country music history.
"But you know, sugar is sweet, but too much can kill you," Jones said to loud applause from the crowd at the Mike Curb College of Entertainment and Music Business at Belmont University.
Jones also told the panel, "We don't need to make a move any further in the wrong direction."
Grand Ole Opry star Porter Wagoner said "clear channel" used to mean a powerful coast-to-coast radio signal like the one that used to broadcast the Opry.
But he said when you say it now, people think about Clear Channel Communications Inc., the media conglomerate that owns hundreds of radio stations and other media outlets.
Wagoner also said radio consolidation restricts the ability of both veteran and new artists to be heard.
"The days of an artist receiving airplay as a new act are gone," Wagoner said.
He recalled how his former duet partner, singer-songwriter Dolly Parton, scored a huge country and pop hit with the song, "Jolene," and he said, "The chance of that happening today is almost slim to none."
Bayard Walters, past chairman of the Tennessee Association of Broadcasters, argued instead that many small-town radio stations are operating and viable today because of consolidation.
Many of those stations, he says, provide opportunities for new and local artists, as well as local content like news, weather and traffic.
Walters said there are 11,000-plus commercial radio stations nationwide. The biggest five companies own 2,000 of those, and the next 20 own 1,000 stations. There are a greater number of licensees today than there were in 1972, he said.
"There are those that say broadcasters don't do enough, but what is the balance in presenting local and new music versus what the public seems to indicate what it wants to hear through ratings and purchases?" he said. "It does not seem to me that the license says, 'Market for free the music of whomever wants to be on the radio."'
The FCC plans to use the information from the hearings as it re-examines rules for media ownership. The first public hearing was held in Los Angeles in October.