Steve Wilson. On music.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Corporate FM: A Film by Kevin McKinney and Jill McKeever

The depth of my experience with and feeling for popular music, especially rock ‘n’ roll, combined with reasonable skills as a writer, gives me a modest confidence when I share my opinions about music with you. I have been a life-long fan of cinema, but the range and intensity of my experiences film just aren't that remarkable. I by no means consider myself a film critic. I'm just a reasonably bright guy who likes movies.What follows makes no attempt to be a film review. It is an endorsement.

Sunday afternoon I saw Kevin McKinney and Jill McKeever's  documentary Corporate FM. In the interest of full disclosure, I play a small part in the film; I am among those interviewed. Working with Kevin and Jill I had a fairly strong sense of both their talents and objectives. And I felt confident that this film would be worth seeing. More than worth seeing, Corporate FM makes an entertaining and important statement.

Corporate FM concerns the corporate takeover of the people’s airwaves as expedited by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, legislation that allowed corporations to own several stations in a given market - market hegemony that had previously been forbidden by the law. The film succinctly chronicles the legislative folly that cleared the way for this assault on communities and free speech.

As someone who in some ways had tuned out commercial radio even before Clear Channel and their ilk turned it into pablum, I wasn’t certain how the filmmaker's eulogy for the likes of KLZR in Lawrence, Kansas would play. After all, there are plenty of us who found college, community and public radio superior, and perhaps sufficient to our radio needs. But Corporate FM  illuminates the ways which commercial FM’s demise effects us all, even if you're the kind of underground sort who thinks that the ascendance of bands like R.E.M., U2, Pearl Jam or Smashing Pumpkins, impossible without commercial rock stations, was inconsequential culturally.  

What McKinney and McKeever do so well is place the devouring of FM radio by corporate interests in the larger context of a political economy gone mad. Corporate media giants like Cumulus, and the aforementioned Clear Channel, have replaced local voices, often from varying political perspectives, with national, consistently conservative, voices. The result is the advent of a corporate Pravda or Izvestia of the airwaves. As a kid who grew up with something called the Fairness Doctrine (, this is remarkable indeed. Seventy percent or more of all opinion reflected on commercial radio in 2012 is not only conservative, but radically so. And it goes unchallenged in the closed circle of corporate FM.

Of course, in the process of eliminating local and dissenting voices and creating ever-narrower music playlists, Clear Channel and Cumulus eliminated thousands of radio jobs, replacing local disc jockeys, program and music directors, reporters and other station personnel. The impact on local businesses has been profound as well, as the majority lack the financial resources and access to marketing dollars that corporate advertisers take for granted.

As McKinney puts it, they eschewed Michael Moore’s ambush journalish, exemplified by Moore’s chasing down GM’s ‘Roger’ in Roger and Me or Charlton Heston for Bowling in Columbine, in favor of letting the film function as blatantly partisan, a polemic told as both love story and lament through the eyes of those closest to it, many of whom may not have thought in particularly political terms prior to the experience, but who bear witness now. These are folks whose politics may not have been particularly anti-corporate, but they've been radicalized by brutal experience.

In summary, far beyond what the disappearance of a radio station may mean to a local music scene or the career development of individual artists, this is a story about what corporate behemoths, whose profitability is based on the anti-social imperatives of capital equity firms, can do to communities. And ultimately about putting corporate ‘freedom’ in front of the people’s.

I feared that the film's emphasis on regional events, especially the sad saga of Lawrence's KLZR, might provide too narrow, too provincial a focus. That fear was unfounded. The locals who testify state their cases effectively, and the universal resonance of this regional history is clear. In other words, they tell a bigger story and do it more persuasively than I anticipated.

My testimony doesn’t do justice to the film, frankly. What I would like for you take away from my remarks is simple, however. “Corporate FM” is a story worth absorbing. It's already been recognized locally, having won the award  for Best Heartland Documentary Feature from the AMC Theatres Kansas City FilmFest 2012. Like a great local band it deserves a wider audience.

You should see it if given the opportunity. 

If you have a few bucks chip in to their Kickstarter fund: (

I’ll be back to music soon. Look for a piece on Lee Bains III and the Glory Fire’s album There is a Bomb in Gilead in the next day or two.