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Originally published Thursday, November 15, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Sign of the times: Another local radio station gets gobbled up

From my desk I am forced by architectural limitations to look north, and so I have spent a good share of my wool-gathering hours pondering life at the corner of First and Mission streets. I have looked out this window, in one way or another, just about every day for the past 30 years, and in that time nothing much changed.

The Wenatchee World

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WENATCHEE — From my desk I am forced by architectural limitations to look north, and so I have spent a good share of my wool-gathering hours pondering life at the corner of First and Mission streets. I have looked out this window, in one way or another, just about every day for the past 30 years, and in that time nothing much changed. Besides streets and sidewalks, I saw a former parking garage, a former motel and a radio station.

Now, add "former" in front of the radio station, too.

I got to work Monday and my first move, as usual, was to stare out the window for a moment, bleary-eyed. This day there was something different. A ladder truck and crane were moving in to lift the KPQ three-apple neon sign off the mount where it had sat and shone, I assume, for at least half a century. Another local landmark disappears, I thought. The decades of sameness are done.

I alerted the media (The World's photo department) and soon people were dropping by to look out on the historic event. The sign was gone by lunch, off for refurbishment and reinstallation at the new corporate radio headquarters down the street. The former radio station building is now just a beige box with a big, red-letter "AVAILABLE" sign facing the Mission Street traffic. There's a big dumpster parked out front. Occasionally, someone comes out of the building and tosses in a box of papers. That's the only sign of life.

The finality hit home. The announcement came months ago that the Colorado-based chain Cherry Creek Radio had bought KPQ from the Wallace family, but the significance wasn't clear until they took those three apples down. The sign was tattered and dated, but it was part of the daily scene here. No more will a hot pink neon K-P-Q light the sidewalk at First and Mission, giving us that we're-almost-home beacon on misty winter nights.

What happened to KPQ isn't unusual, not at all. The Federal Communications Commission once had a stiff thumb on radio-station ownership. No one could own more than two stations in one market or more than 40 nationwide. Congress lifted those rules with the Telecommunications Act of 1996, and unleashed the big buyout, a pent-up conglomeration spree. Local radio stations were gobbled up one after another by corporate investors until the idea of local-station ownership seemed almost quaint.

KPQ was a rare holdout. Cherry Creek already owned five stations in Wenatchee when it took over KPQ. It owns more than 60 stations across the West. By modern corporate standards, that's small. Clear Channel Communications, one of the big players, owns more than 1,200.

There remains strong pressure to allow this media consolidation to accelerate. In 2003, the FCC proposed a major loosening of the rules, including the elimination of the cross-media ownership ban that prevented newspapers from buying radio and television stations. The courts threw out the changes. Now they are on the table again.

On Friday, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin held a public hearing on the issue in Seattle and suffered a ceaseless barrage of negative comments. Testifying against loosening the rules were an amazingly wide array of citizens, not just the usual activists. They ranged from Gov. Christine Gregoire to Attorney General Rob McKenna, most of the state congressional delegation, including Republican Dave Reichert, and even conservatives like King County Councilman Reagan Dunn and radio host John Carlson.

Media consolidation stifles creative local voices, they said. It limits the competition that encourages the free flow of information.

They are right. Martin on Tuesday proposed a toned-down loosening of the rules, to allow cross-ownership of newspapers, radio and television only in the largest markets. Even that is probably too much. We can see right here at First and Mission what can happen when they just open the door a crack.

Tracy Warner is the editorial page editor of The Wenatchee World. This column was published in The World on Nov. 13. E-mail: warner@wenworld.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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