Book Review: Eric Klinenberg's Fighting For Air

Today marks the release of Eric Klinenberg’s Fighting for Air: The Battle To Control America’s Media. Timed for release with the National Conference on Media Reform, I expect attendees can pick up a copy there. Those of you who must, for whatever unfortunate reason, miss the big media ‘do in Memphis can order it from Amazon. (I have no idea if mainstream bookstores will carry it.)

Anyone who wants to understand the media reform movement should buy this book. More importantly, this is the book to give your friends and relatives so that they can understand why the media reform movement matters, and why it will succeed in transforming the media landscape despite the multi-billion dollar forces arrayed against it.

Review below . . . .

Others have written excellent books on the rise of media concentration and why it sucks rocks. What makes Fighting for Air different, and therefore a must read, is that it chronicles the history of the media reform movement. Certainly you will understand by the end of the book why media concentration has inspired a movement of people dedicated to stopping further consolidation and reversing the effects of our increasingly centralized and homogenized media. But this realization comes through the telling of the stories of the movement — its people, its victories, and its set backs.

If you’ve attended any of the siginifcant media reform events of the last few years, you may well have met Eric Klinenberg. Klinenberg has spent years researching this book and talking to an endless number of people around the country about media and media reform. He spoke to folks on the industry side and on the reformer side and to just plain folks. This painstaking and personal research shows in the deft way he weaves personal interviews and stories about events together into an emminently readable history that allows the participants to speak in their own words.

In researching and telling the story this way, Klinenberg displays a rare appreciation for the human element in political and economic history. From the opening retelling of the Minot, North Dakota train disaster where the local emergency communication system failed due to Clear Channel’s failure to maintain an off-hours contact for their stations, to the small-market radio company that developed the technology that enabled “centralcasting,” from the media companies that drove consolidation to the halls of the FCC and Congress, you get a very personal and worms-eye view of how all the pieces added up to both the consolidated media and the movement that has succesfully opposed further broadcast consolidation for the last three years. Unlike many other books that treat this as a matter of impersonal contending forces, you don’t get lost in the statistics or feel that individuals don’t matter in the huge sweep of technological innovation, economic interest, and corrupt politics.

Not that Klinenberg ignores those forces. He provides plenty of statistics and solid econ and political theory to explain what’s going on. Nor does Klinenberg fall prey to the other extreme, of writing a history of personal anecdotes or of a handfull of brave heroes without any regard to the larger forces at play. Rather, Klinenberg manages to strike a balance that reflects an academic’s framing but a reporter’s sensibilities of how to write a story that will grab the ordinary reader. By the end of Fighting for Air, you will have a thorough understanding of the economic and political forces that shaped todays media landscape, and an appreciation for the technology that made it possible. But throughout Fighting for Air, you never lose track of the real people involved.

I’ll confess I can’t take a detached view of Fighting For Air. For a start, I know and like Eric, and I get a good two page write up. But more importantly, Klinenberg brings the people I know in the movement alive in his writing. I can’t read his description of a Low Power FM “barn raising” in Nashville without getting caught up in it all over again. But even taking these biases into account, I think the book does a bang up job covering a huge amount of material in a relatively small space (less than 300 pages) while remaining a gripping read.

Fighting For Air starts with a description of the Minot disaster. In the early morning hours, a train carrying toxic chemicals jumped the rails near Minot, MN. The town emergency plan called for using radio to alert people about the dangers and safety procedures, including possible evacuation orders. When townsfolk awakened by noise and the smells of toxic fumes called the police and other local emergency services, the emergency responders instructed them to stay inside and listen to the radio for updates. But Clear Channel operated Minot’s only station via remote control, with no emergency number or other means of reaching a living person capable of overiding the automated programming. In the end, one person died and dozens suffered serious injuries that timely instruction could have prevented.

From that introduction, Klinenberg describes how the radio industry went from a collection of relatively small companies to a relatively few, large conglomerates. He follows the same consolidation and efforts to cut costs through centralized production of content and “synergies” in television broadcast, newspapers, and the alternative weeklies. Klinenberg describes the impact the change in industry had on local programming. Increasingly, radio and television broadcasters reduced or dropped local news reporting (while television expanded the amount of time devoted to news formats) and reduced local programming (which costs money to produce) in favor of homogenized formats, standardized playlists, and producing centralized news.

Throughout the narrative, Klinenberg takes care to provide perspective from the Clear Channels and Sinclairs of the world. In the stories and interviews Klinenberg uses from the 2002-04 period, you can feel the pride of the folks at these companies as they use innovative technology to cut cost. “If we had a bunch of twelve-year old boys in here, we could run the whole station,” boasts Sinclair Vice President Mark Hyman in the chapter ‘News From Nowhere.’ He talks about how the media reacted to Minot by providing coverage in New Orleans and during the East Coast blackout of 2004 — and what ways the local coverage still fell short of what was needed and what stations used to provide. While Klinenberg makes no pretense of hiding his basic symapthies, neither does he resort to the kind of demonization of opponents that has become too common in the non-fiction reporting genre.

Klinenberg then describes the reactions to this consolidation: the creation of a deeply disatisfied audience that no longer trusts the media for news and does not find its cookie cutter programming particularly compelling. This has produced two headaches for the media companies. First, the broadcast and newspaper industries badly miscalculated when they assumed that audiences would remain loyal as product quality decreased. The final pages of the book observe that the major radio, broadcasting and newspaper chains have found themselves in a cycle of continued decline in audience share as audiences flee to alternatives such as the internet, satellite radio and low power radio. The massive media conglomerates cannot cut costs enough to keep up with their losses in revenue from lost audience share, or service the huge debt they developed building their empires. “Synergy” has become a death spiral for the industry, with newspapers and other “old media” companies like Tribune and Clear Channel looking to break themselves up and sell the pieces.

At the same time, however, the media companies continue to press Washington to relax ownership rules even further in the hopes that they will finally own enough to achieve monopoly market power and make ‘synergies’ profitable. Which brings us to the second — and far more significant for the long term — result of the media conglomerates pissing off their audiences. A new generation of media activists has emerged, one that both seeks to hold traditional media accountable and create opportunities for new voices and engender a rebirth of community-based media.

Klinenberg tracks the rise of actvists like Malkia Cyril and the Youth Media Council, who organized the Oakland minority community to protest Clear Channel programming on KMEL and get local affairs and local music restored. He devotes an entire chapter to the creation of the Low Power FM radio service, and how Prometheus Radio and others have managed to combine the focused localism of community radio with the politics of a national movement. Klinenberg talks about the founding of Free Press as a new national grassroots organization dedicated exclusively to media policy. This new generation of activists, working with pre-existing organizations such as Media Access Project, Common Cause, Consumers Union, US PIRG and others, has become a genuine political movement active at every level from street protests to the halls of Congress and the FCC.

In a rare move for a book not written as a law book or a legal history, Klinenberg spends a decent amount of time on the regulatory fight around media ownership in 2002-03 and the 2004 court case Prometheus Radio Project v. FCC, which reversed the FCC’s efforts to relax the media ownership rules. I confess I’m grateful that Klinenberg covers this, and covers it well. Usually, no one cares about the regulatory and court fights. Books about grand economic and political science theory treat the actual actors as irrelevant and the results almost predetermined. Who cares who the lawyers or even the Commissioners were if policy is just a numbers crunching game of who exerts what influence? On the other hand, books about individuals and movements usually focus on the grassroots and marches and orginizing and protests. They tend to ignore the pedestrian process that leads to the results. Anyone even vaguely familiar with the civil rights movement has heard of Martin Luther King Jr. and his march on Washington, but how many people know what it took to get the Civil Rights Act of 1964 actually drafted, passed and signed?

So when a book actually spends some time on the legal and regulatory manuevers, which (as regular readers know) I find pretty darn interesting and important, I consider it a major miracle. And when someone covers it well, as Klinenberg does, it’s definitely time to break out the champaign. For this alone, I would recommend the book to folks who want a more complete picture of what makes media policy.

In particular, Klinenberg does a very good job spotlighting the role played by Democratic Commissioners Copps and Adelstein. Although in the minority on the FCC (which has five Commissioners, no more than three from the same political party), Copps and Adelstein engaged in a very succesfull war of manuever against the forces of consolidation through their willingness to criss-cross the country and raise the profile of the media consolidation issue. Never before have FCC Commissioners made themselves so available to the public — as opposed to industry — or invested so much time pushing for greater public involvement in the regulatory process. Any history of the media reform movement that speaks of the FCC as a monolithic institution, or ignores Copps and Adelstein and their continual outreach to the public on this issue, misses a critical part of the story. Fortunately, Klinenberg captures their critical role and records it with his usual thoroughness and readability.

Finally, Klinenberg looks at the rise of digital media as a potential haven for community media and to look at the battles that lie ahead. Klinenberg touches briefly on community wireless projects such as the North Lawndale project in Chicago and on the fight over municiple broadband in 2005. But Klinenberg’s real focus in this area is on the emergence of online reporting and the continuing fight over network neutrality.

Klinenberg sees online reporting as growing into the same niche once occupied by independent alternate newspapers, before consolidation hit the print indies and made such traditional outsider dissident voices as The Village Voice yet another component of a media chain obsessed with cost-cutting through homogenized content. (His chapter on the subject, “The Net and the News,” directly follows “Chaining the Alternatives” and segues from it.) While regarding this outlet as important and a useful alternative to mainstream media, Klinenberg does not suggest that “the internet” has somehow replaced mainstream media or rendered the fight over media concentration obsolete. While happy to describe how citizen journalists, disatisfied with coverage of New Orleans during Katrina and Rita, used the internet to provide pesonal pespectives and new information, he does not hesitate to list the problems with relying on the internet as the only source of news. Mainstream media still dominate the actual reporting of stories, few newsites or bloggers provide extensive fact-checking or can field their own reporting crews. And while raw photo footage and direct stream of consciousness writing provide a sense of connection absent in today’s media, the ability of a trained journalist to provide context and balance is also important.

So while the explosion of citizen journalism and the use of broadband as a means of creating community-based media makes the deployment of ubiquitous, affordable high-speed access a really good thing, it doesn’t replace conventional media. Nevertheless, Klinenberg properly places them in the context of the broader movement. The media reform movement is more than just curbing corporate power. It’s also creating new opportunities for people to speak in their own voice.

Klinenberg concludes with a brief exploration of the threats to this new medium. Klinenberg touches briefly on the corporate effort to outlaw publicly financed broadband, but spends much of his time here on network neutrality. Klinenberg draws the connection between network neutrality and media ownership generally, and shows how the newly created media reform movement stopped the cable and telco companies in their tracks by using the modern tools of civic engagement.

I expect that folks in the movement who do not see their issues discussed will feel disappointed. Klinenberg does not touch on cable, for example, except as part of the network neutrality debate. Anyone invovled in the recent fights over cable franchising and public access will likely sigh to see their issue remain largely undiscussed. Similarly, I could wish for more discussion of my beloved open spectrum issues, which get barely a nod as part of the discussion of community broadband.

But these cannot be offered as serious criticisms. To cover everything would require twice as much space, and by the time Klinenberg finished researching it and writing it there would be a dozen new issues all relating to the supremely important subject of how to enable the enormous untapped potential of human communication. On an issue as broad and deep as this, any author must make decisions on when to stop researching and start writing. Klineberg makes judicious choices, and manages to cover a heck of a lot of ground.

In any event, Klinenberg has made no claim to writing a “definitive history.” Rather, as Klinenberg writes in the introduction:

Fighting for Air tells two overarching stories that would be common knowledge but for the crisis in communications they address: First, how Big Media companies parlayed bold political entreprenuerialism and the federal government’s blind faith in thepower of markets and technology to win historic concessions from Congress and the Federal Communications Commission, which they used to dominate local markets coast to coast….The second big story in Fighting For Air is an account of how citizens and civic groups discovered that the tenty-four-hour, all-you-can-eat buffet of stale news is crushing creative and independent voices, destroying the rich American tradtion of local reporting, and clogging the informational arteries that make democracy work.”

Klinenberg succeeds admirably in telling these stories, and in doing so tells a story of profound significance in an age of cynicism and disempowerment: how media activists “fighting for air” have begun to turn the tide on media ownership. Certainly no one will decalre victory yet, not by a long shot. But, as I sit here getting ready to go to a media reform conference of 3000 or so activists, where Congressmen, FCC Commissioners and big name media stars will address the crowds of activists from diverse communities around the country, I can’t help but reflect on how much things have changed since that October day in 2002 when the FCC released its Bienniel Review notice proposing to eliminate the last remaining safe gaurds against consolidation. As Shakespere put it in Henry the Fifth:

This story shall the good man teach his son:
And Crispine Crispian shall ne’re go by,
From this day to the ending of the World,
But we in it shall be remembred;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers:
For he today that sheds his blood with me,
Shall be my brother: be he ne’re so vile,
This day shall gentle his Condition.
And Gentlemen in England, now a bed,
Shall thinke themselues accurst they were not here;
And hold their Manhoods cheap, whiles any speaks,
That fought with us upon Saint Crispines day.

Whatever happens next, Fighting for Air tells the story of “we happy few” in the media reform movement. I’m glad I’ve been part of it, and I’m glad someone with Eric Klinenberg’s keen eye for detail and talent for prose has written it down.

Stay tuned . . . .


  1. We’re ALL rock stars — Harold, Hannah, Eric, even me. Can’t wait to get my copy at the conference.

  2. Ben, you got it! (although I’m always happy to hear someone as talented as Hannah say it.)

  3. Klinenberg broad strokes the subject, and fails to acknowledge adequately the many stations that serve the public interest quite well.

    If anything, the “Big Media” is Television networks that clearly and openly at times portray their bias.

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