Life Inc., Publishing and Radio

I really enjoyed my conversation with Douglas Rushkoff, discussing his new book Life, Inc; How the World Became a Corporation and How To Take It Back. The first part of this interview is on this week’s edition of the mediageek radioshow.

I find that Doug is articulating very clearly a lot of ideas that have also been rattling around my ahead for the last decade or so, but he’s made the effort to research them and flesh them out in print both in his book and in a growing series of columns and essays. What I like about his analytical approach is his willingness to attempt to get outside our contemporary assumptions about daily life and try to figure out when and how something, like the corporation, was brought into existence. I also appreciate that he’s willing to continue prodding at a question even when the answers are murky, showing a willingness to accept there are some apparent conflicts in the messy reality of daily life.

He recently wrote a piece for Publisher’s Weekly arguing that the publishing business is very ill-suited to corporate consolidation. He notes that book publishing is a sustainable business, but not a source of tremendous year-over-year growth of the sort a large corporation needs. But he remains sanguine about the future of publishing because the expert editors, publishers and writers haven’t gone away and are ready to rebuild the industry, perhaps with new independent houses.

I see some parallel with the radio business, although radio has been far more decimated than publishing. The root problem is the same: the large consolidating companies treated radio as a commodities business, seeking unreasonable profit growth that the business could not sustain. Radio differs from publishing in the fact that stations must be licensed and are therefore inherently limited in number, whereas publishing houses can be more easily started with less capital and require no licensing of any sort.

If new independents could start radio stations without having to try and pry licenses away from the likes of Clear Channel and Cumulus, I think we’d already be seeing some innovative rebooting of the industry. Unfortunately, radio is more like a neighborhood where the landowners have all let their properties get run down but refuse to sell them because scarcity still keeps the going rate artificially high.

In some sporadic cases we see innovation happening in public and community radio, where license holders can keep their stations sustainable but don’t have to rake in enormous profits. I just keep hoping that Clear Channel will finally bite the bullet and need to start shedding stations left and right, giving an opportunity for smaller, local and independent owners to get back into the game. Admittedly, it’s a more distant hope than the reinvigoration of the publishing industry, since another smaller consolidator, like CBS Radio, might choose to pack its stables, outbidding smaller players.

That’s the problem with licensing, and, to an extent, why the founding fathers organized against the Stamp Act of 1765. As it was designed, radio pretty much needs to be licensed because it was premised on scarcity partially imposed by the technological limits of 1927. But it’s not necessarily an inherent fact about radio. Perhaps the future of wireless communications will render this period of licensing a short historical anomaly. It’s an open question and no better than a 50/50 proposition right now.

Doug has his own relatively new radio show, The Media Squat, on the great noncommercial station, WFMU. In the interview we talked about his program and our shared challenged of trying to do an original weekly program on a completely volunteer, non-profit basis. That part of the interview will air on the next edition of mediageek. You can listen to it live on Thursday, Sept. 10, at 9 PM Central time on WNUR 89.3 FM in Chicago and online at Of course, the program will be archived online next week.


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