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Demise of independent radio might be overstated in Mississippi

Considering the wave of consolidation that ran through big media after the passing of the 1996 Telecom Act, radio station ownership in Mississippi is still pretty diverse, with the largest chain in the nation, 1,200-property Clear Channel Communication, only owning 24 of the 60-plus stations in the state.

Independent owners are as diverse as their audiences, with educational institutions like Mississippi College and French Camp Academy owning gospel stations and long-lived radio ownership companies, such as Boswell Radio in Kosciusko, owning sister stations Breezy 101-FM and Kosciusko News Talk 1340 AM.

The size of the audiences in Mississippi probably make the state less attractive to the chain stations, said Melanie Stone, assistant professor of journalism and WUMS general manager at the University of Mississippi. “In your smaller markets is where you have your independent owners,” said Stone

Clear Channel’s stations in Mississippi fall in only four markets: Laurel-Hattiesburg, Tupelo, Meridian and Jackson. Most of their competition in those markets comes from local chains, such as Blakeney Communications in Hattiesburg, owner of five stations, and New South Radio of Jackson, owners of four stations.

“We’re about the only locally owned radio stations left,” said Nancy Fletcher, local sales manager for stations Y101.7, US 96.3, Mix 98.7, and Blues 780.

The diminishing impact of local radio in news is cited as one of the reasons the Telecom Act’s provisions weren’t seen as a threat to media expression, according to former FCC chairman Reed Hundt.

“Radio is not regarded as having the same role in the political debate; that’s why a lot of people on both sides of the aisle just felt it wasn’t an important topic,” Hundt said in an interview with Salon.com.

It’s a contention Eric Matthews, noontime DJ at Breezy 101 in Kosciusko, doesn’t agree with, especially when it comes to local news.

“Being more community-based and more community-focused, we’re keeping more in tune with what’s going on in the area,” Matthews said, citing severe weather alerts and local police news as examples.

“The music is just a plus — informing the public is really the important thing,” said Matthews. With a 12-county listening area, the station emphasizes their appeal to 24-35 year-old listeners and its launch of an Internet news outlet, Breezy News Dot Com, to their advertisers.

A Mississippi chain that takes that charge seriously (making inroads particularly in talk radio in competition with CC’s five sports and news stations) is Mississippi-based TeleSouth Broadcasting, parent company of SuperTalk Mississippi. TeleSouth Broadcasting distributes the Mississippi News Network, the Southern Urban Network, the Mississippi Agricultural Network and sports programs for high school and collegiate competition.

The SuperTalk Network began four or five years ago serving most of Central, Southeast and Northeast Mississippi with four company-owned stations: WFMN-FM, 97.3 in Jackson, WFMM-FM, 97.3 in Hattiesburg, WTCD- FM, 96.9 in the Delta and WTNM-FM 105.5 in Oxford.

As morning host of “The Gallo Radio Show,” Paul Gallo simultaneously outrages, entertains and informs Mississippi on the issues of the day, with 20 phone lines running into the studio for listener comment. Although the station runs syndicated material such as “The Dave Ramsey Show” and “The Radio Factor with Bill O’Reilly,” the heart and soul of SuperTalk’s offerings are the local political commentary.

“The concept is to cover most of Mississippi; ultimately it will be a statewide talk show with Mississippi issues,” said Gallo.

The interaction between Mississippi hosts and Mississippi listeners is the wild card in talk radio — and Mississippi politicians have called in to take advantage of that immediacy.

“You can’t get that in a nationally-syndicated show,” said Gallo.

A wide-ranging audience made SuperTalk a natural choice for The Forum Sports Bar and Grill to increase its lunch business in Jackson, said Carlton Turner, public relations manager for the restaurant. “We were looking for a way to boost our lunches — most people didn’t know we even did lunch,” Turner said. After they began advertising with SuperTalk last September, business increased “tremendously”, Turner noted.

“You find all types of people that listen to that station. For lunch, everybody has to eat, so we wanted something everybody would listen to.”

Diverse local offerings to draw the college crowd is the hallmark for another station in the Oxford area — Bullseye 95.5 FM is the home of the nationally acclaimed “Thacker Mountain Radio”, a show broadcast weekly from Off Square Books in Oxford, featuring the Taylor Grocery Band and various authors on tour to promote their works at Square Books.

Although the station itself only covers counties in Northeast Mississippi, the radio station has drawn attention from national publications such as Southern Living and regional ones including The Commercial Appeal and The Clarion-Ledger — the kind of publicity and exposure no money can buy.

Lynn Roberts, manager of Square Books, said the show has over 150 in their live audience each night and was recently picked up by Public Radio in Mississippi for rebroadcast on its stations. Jamie Kornegay, producer, said the show was a great fit with Bullseye 95.5’s independent-minded programming. “In our experience, they’re more willing to take a chance on local programming. It turned out to be a good gamble for them,” Kornegay said.

“They’re kind of in the same boat we are; they’re a small staff and an independent just like we are — so we understand each other,” said Kornegay.

Mike Staton, who works at many capacities at Bullseye, including DJ and ad sales rep, said the station tries to offer diverse programming, including the daily “Jubilee All Request Lunch Hour,” the weekly “Gospel Time” all day on Sundays, and the “Totally Eighties Show” every Thursday night from 8-10 p.m. “It really fits with the demographics of the college students we have here, “ Staton said.

Independent performer and recording artist Matthew Clark does think that the loss of independent stations could result in less chances for new artists to break through to radio success. “Most of the programming (on corporate stations) isn’t even decided by individuals. From what I understand DJ’s don’t really get to pick any of the music, it’s all predetermined programming — radio dictatorship in a way,” said Clark, who tours the Southeast from his home base in Oxford. “So for an independent artist like me, there’s virtually no way to get in on that list.”

Clark gets around that difficulty by selling his self-produced CD “Shelter” at his own Web site, as well as cdbaby.com and MP3.com.

“The Internet is so recent; someone like me getting into music these days has so many outlets and resources that were much more difficult to come by in the past,” Clark said.

But even with the consolidation, the Internet music model and the looming popularity of satellite radio, Stone said there should always be a place in the industry for the locally-owned independent station.

“There’s still an awful lot of people who listen to the radio,” Stone said. “Even though there have been so many changes in how it’s delivered, it’s still the warm and fuzzy medium — the immediacy of it with a DJ that knows your community and the names of your streets.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer at Julie Whitehead at mb

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