A Kansas City Filmmaker's Documentary About Corporate Radio Gets A Signal Boost From Amazon
It’s taken a long time for people to be able watch the documentary Kansas City filmmaker Kevin McKinney released in 2012. But he’s at peace with that.
After all, the problems he explored in "Corporate FM" – the corporatization and consolidation of local commercial radio – still exist. And he’s OK with the fact that audiences can watch it now because it’s streaming through Amazon Prime.
Amazon might not seem like the ideal distribution choice for a filmmaker so concerned with media conglomeration, but McKinney felt compelled to embrace the wider release so that more people would have access to the information.
“I’d rather give the movie away than for high finance to continue to strangle stations,” he says. “If I help one station, this is worth it.”
McKinney’s talking about the kind of locally owned commercial music stations where humans with entertaining personalities decided which records to play and contributed to a city’s sense of place. Some of them still exist, even in Kansas City, but far fewer than communities need, McKinney's film argues.
Music lovers often blame the internet for the decline in these types of stations. After all, why would anyone listen to the potentially unpredictable radio when they can choose their own music via satellite and streaming?
But McKinney’s film argues that the real reasons are more complex and predate the invention of file-sharing sites like Napster.
In 1983, he notes, 90 percent of the mass media in the United States was owned by 50 different corporations. By 2012, that 90 percent was owned by six corporations.
This type of media consolidation means fewer people decide what music, movies, and television shows we have access to. It means we have less variety. And it limits the local connection between media organizations and their audiences.
McKinney’s original inspiration for the film was a drop in attendance at live shows.
When he was in college in Lawrence, he remembers, he would go to the Bottleneck – a live-music institution – and 300 people would show up to see a local band every Wednesday night.
Later, he asked Jeff Peterson, the assistant music director at what was then the locally owned modern-rock station KLZR, about why that was.
“He said that if they found out tickets were not selling for a show, they would start playing that band more. They would reach out to the band for an interview,” McKinney explains. “This isn’t the band reaching out to the radio station. It’s the station recognizing that it’s incumbent on them to unite the community.”
But KLZR was sold in 1998, he says, and “switched to the same cookie-cutter format as all the other pop stations. The change was enormous. Imagine a music scene that was the envy of other cities vanishing. The musicians are still there, but the audience is not. Why is that? Simply because the radio station stopped promoting local music.”
After the Telecommunications Act of 1996 reduced regulation on media mergers, conglomerates such as Cumulus, Entercom, and Clear Channel (rechristened iHeartMedia in 2014) began buying locally owned radio stations all over the country. The corporations purchased the stations in a way that shifted the debt liability to the stations themselves.
The buyout practice, which McKinney and the people he interviews note was not sustainable in 2012, is the key cause of iHeartMedia’s current economic decline: The Wall Street Journal speculated earlier this month that the company might file for bankruptcy in March.
Leveraged buyouts and other economic aspects of commercial radio can be baffling until McKinney outlines the processes with helpful and entertaining line animations. The film is informative and engaging, full of interviews with local musicians, current and retired DJs and national artists such as folk singer Jewel and Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne.
It also includes interviews with several popular DJs who were pushed out of work after conglomeration began. These are the types of changes McKinney notes cannot be blamed on the internet.
Up until now, "Corporate FM" has mostly been shown at community screenings and film festivals. McKinney re-edited part of the film in 2015 to reflect updates and changes in the commercial radio industry. Since then, he's also done camera and lighting work on other documentaries.
“It’s easy to be a workaholic when you are making a feature film” he notes. “I now have a practice that rejuvenates my personal development and family time so that I can be happy when I’m working hard.”
And even though his film is now streaming on the conglomerate that might have killed local bookstores, McKinney is embracing the sense of completion offered by the Amazon release.
“Maybe it’s because I feel it’s a mission or maybe it’s because I feel like the movie is finished,” he says. “I never felt that before.”
Melissa Lenos is an Assistant Professor of English at Donnelly College, where she teaches film studies, composition, literature and popular culture. She can be reached at email@example.com.