Top Ten Media Stories of 1995
On the national level, 1995 was a year of huge media mergers and takeovers. Disney's purchase of ABC and Westinghouse's acquisition of CBS epitomized this decade-long trend towards the centralization of power in the hands of fewer and fewer giant, multi-national conglomerates. And while the continued development of the Internet provided a healthy alternative to this corporate-controlled climate of news distribution, this medium was hardly immune to the bigger-is-better buyout frenzy. What's more, last year's congressional efforts at so-called telecom reform signal that the rebellious nature of the on-line frontier will soon have a much tamer feel.
Many of these developments quickly filtered their way to the Central Texas market. Yes, Austin saw some huge media changes in 1995, but the end result was pretty uneventful for local residents. With a few notable exceptions, the quality of media in this city still lags far behind the intellectual thirst of its well-educated, culturally-aware populace. Perhaps 1996 will be the year in which local radio and television stations, as well as the daily newspaper, finally deliver a product that invigorates Austin's collective imagination while stimulating further dialogue and debate. Judging by 1995's top ten media stories, however, it does not seem likely.
1. New Austin American-Statesman Editor. Former Charlotte Observer editor Rich Oppel took over at the Statesman in August. The paper has improved dramatically since then -- its new aggressive coverage of Freeport-McMoRan's mining operation in Indonesia certainly played a major role in the decision of University of Texas Chancellor Bill Cunningham to resign from the company's board of directors. Nonetheless, the Statesman still has lots of ground to gain. Until embarrassing features such as "Rant `n Rave" are eliminated, no one will take this paper too seriously.
2. Hightower Silenced. The frenzy of national media mergers hit home in September when Austin-based Hightower Radio was dropped by ABC. According to the host, the show's demise was ultimately sealed when ABC was purchased by Disney -- one of the many mega-deals that the outspoken populist had been highly critical of on this weekend call-in program. Unfortunately, with this man now off the air, such healthy skepticism of the country's unending march towards media corporatization is largely absent from the radio dial.
3. The Houston Post Closes. After years of shaky finances, The Post finally closed its doors April 19. Aside from hundreds of jobs, the Bayou City also lost the many competitive advantages afforded to cities which enjoy two daily newspapers. Like San Antonio and Dallas, Houstonians must now get all their daily print info from one source -- in this case The Houston Chronicle. Austin residents, nonetheless, have enjoyed the only silver lining to this dark cloud: the Statesman's new Capital Bureau chief is Ken Herman, who formerly held the same position with The Post.
4. Paul Pryor Fired. On December 18, KLBJ-AM announced that it had fired popular afternoon talk-show host Paul Pryor, who is apparently suffering from depression and substance abuse problems. This firing is something of a victory for local environmentalists and progressives, who were the incessant object of ridicule on this program. Meanwhile, the host of causes regularly advocated by Pryor -- running the gamut from local developers to the pro-gun lobby to Operation Rescue -- must now find another high-profile spokesperson to further their agenda.
5. What's the Frequency? The year's most hyped media story was the July K-EYE/KTBC frequency switch, the former station becoming the city's new CBS affiliate and the latter taking the Fox signal. Although the switch itself gained reams and reams of press, too little attention was focused on the powers-that-be that were able to orchestrate these moves -- giant media corporations with little care for the Austin market that are able to trade television properties like so many handfuls of marbles. Oh well, I guess that's why they call it the boob tube.
6. Bad News. Two new stations (K-EYE and KNVA) began broadcasting nightly news reports this year. In the world of TV news, however, there is no direct relationship between quantity and quality. While technologically breathtaking, the overall K-EYE effort has been laughably poor, as its news team has committed countless dumb mistakes amidst amazingly uninformed reporting. KNVA, which uses the production facilities and much of the on-air talent of Channel 36, has made fewer gaffes but has still done little in the way of coverage that would warrant a significant audience share.
7. Internet Explosion. In 1995, everyone from KXAN-TV to Texas Monthly joined the Infobahn, publishing their e-mail addresses as well as their newly constructed web sites. The mass media have apparently realized that ignoring the information superhighway won't make it go way. What they haven't always understood is that half-hearted efforts won't cut it with this new technology. Many of the media-produced on-line offerings that began appearing last year are insipid, boring, and graphically uninspiring -- exactly why computer users turned off these other outlets in the first place and turned to the Internet.
8. Selena Saturation. While the nation was riveted to the O.J. Simpson trial, the Selena murder captivated the hearts and minds of the Lone Star State. In fact, the Associated Press voted the slaying of the Tejano singing star the year's top Texas news story. News? Sure, Selena had begun to gain mainstream appeal and her tragic death personifies the haphazardly violent nature of American life in the late 20th century. Yet as long as the media devote so much attention to stories like this, they can ignore the real political and economic issues that truly shape our daily lives.
9. Radio, Radio. It was another busy year for commercial radio in Austin, with one of the most exciting changes being the addition of another alternative rock station (KROX, 101.5). While the new station's playlist has been disappointingly limited, it scored a huge hit by temporarily signing up Butthole Surfer Gibby Haynes as a late-night disc jockey. Haynes brought candor, spontaneity, and biting sarcastic humor to the airwaves, qualities completely absent from most FM broadcasts. On the non-commercial side of the dial, KOOP (91.7) celebrated its first anniversary in December.
10. Fun and Games. After Bill Schoening jumped from KLBJ-AM to KVET-AM, a heated turf war between the two stations ensued in which both drastically upgraded the overall scope of their sports coverage. One big question, however, emerged as a result of this intense flurry of activity. If the two stations will spend this much time and energy on covering jocks, why can't they devote a little more effort to serious, hard-hitting, investigative journalism, the kind of broadcasting that would make Austin a better city? n