Defining the public interest is not easy, but in the Minot saga Klinenberg has effectively identified an unmistakable violation of it: the public interest suffers when a single corporate entity with no visible regard for local communities captures its radio outlets, while the FCC acts as if it has hung a banner over its doorway that reads, “Do tread on me, in fact, please walk all over me.” The consolidation and deregulation that allowed locally owned and operated media to become San Antonio clones failed the public good in Minot. The victims? Not diverse or probing media voices—the truth is that local media have rarely offered high-minded or courageous journalism, least of all on the radio. The victim that Klinenberg calls our attention to is localism. Day to day, the localism of radio may not matter much. In an emergency, nothing matters more.
The Minot story is painful to read. How could we have allowed ourselves to get into such a fix? Every legislator in America, and every FCC commissioner, should work to see that local radio will responsibly provide emergency broadcasting.
Klinenberg cultivates the localism theme in successive chapters, with equal fervor but less punch. His chapter on alt-weeklies is a lament about media concentration. He documents how a once lively and competitive marketplace for youth-oriented, irreverent weeklies that publish significant investigative local stories was slowly tamed by two alt-weekly chains—Village Voice Media and New Times, which merged in 2006. He tells this tale without encouraging the reader to observe that alternative weeklies, regardless of their ownership, occupy a market niche that, New York City aside, did not emerge until the 1960s. Even as alt-weekly consolidation grows, it grows within a sector that simply did not exist forty-five years ago. Is this an example of frightening concentration or greater diversity? The paradox that must be contemplated is that it is both.
Klinenberg’s writing is strongest in bringing alive the originality, enterprise, stumbles, and successes of various grass-roots endeavors. Consider his account of Ginny Welsch, the “veteran radio personality” in Nashville who sought a low-power radio license because “ Nashville radio is terrible for local bands, terrible.” And there’s April Glaser, the “pink-haired teenager with a passion for obscure music” who, at seventeen, became a member of Welsch’s executive board; and April’s father, who was so moved by her dedication that he purchased land and built a radio tower for the station. The day that “Radio Free Nashville” began broadcasting, Klinenberg was there as a witness, and he movingly describes the opening cry of “Low Power to the People!”
This radio barn-raising exemplifies the great American impulse to speak out and speak up. What’s not to admire? It’s the energy of democratic renewal that Tocqueville tipped his hat to in the 1830s. Europeans couldn’t match it then, nor can they now. We can be glad there is a Radio Free Nashville, and that local musicians get some air time on it, but its birth is a modest triumph, not, as Klinenberg hints, a world historical moment.