Since longtime Pittsburgh disc jockey Porky Chedwick died Sunday at age 96, someone, amid all the encomiums that have poured forth, has surely said there will never be another record-spinner like Porky Chedwick.
And they would be right.
Some of that reflects Chedwick’s specific talents and some of that reflects the region’s older demographics. Considering he launched his career in 1948, just three years after the end of World War II, Chedwick was a dependable, comfortable presence for many of the region’s older residents who grew up listening to him first on the family’s living room radio and, later, on the transistor radios they carried with them and in the cars they drove. He grew into an endearingly nostalgic touchstone, a talisman of youth long-departed. In places like Phoenix or Atlanta, which have been inundated with transplants from other parts of the country and, increasingly, other corners of the globe, the death of a disc jockey whose heyday was a half-century ago would likely not have generated so much attention.
But part of the reason there will likely be no more Porky Chedwicks has to do with how radio, and the entire media landscape, has changed, and those changes are partially the result of public policy.
Audiences are, of course, far more fragmented than they were when Chedwick burst on the scene. Back then, AM was the only game in town and television only had a couple of channels. It was possible, in that framework, for a disc jockey to become a familiar name and a household fixture. The audience started to fragment soon enough, though, with the ascent of FM and the greater number of choices offered by cable television. That trend only accelerated thanks to the rise of the Internet. We have all retreated into our own niches, with few big events, save the Super Bowl or a 9/11-level catastrophe, to bind us together.
But radio on both the AM and FM dials has been increasingly wrung dry of local personality and creativity over the last 30 years or so. The Telecommunications Act of 1996, to which President Bill Clinton affixed his signature amid his successful campaign for a second term, put the gas pedal to the floor. The law lifted ownership limits for all broadcasters and eased limits on how many stations one owner could operate in any given market.
Before the Telecommunications Act went into effect, broadcasters could own just 40 stations, period, whether they were in Oregon or Ohio or Idaho, and just two stations per market. After the Telecommunications Act went into effect, the national ownership limits were erased, and companies were allowed to control up to eight stations in any given market.
This left radio in the hands of increasingly few deep-pocketed owners who favor focus groups and one-size-fits-all formats that are interchangeable from city to city. Chedwick was deservedly praised for playing music by African-American artists in Pittsburgh when few others would take that chance. That’s because he had the latitude to do so and bosses who would back him up. Today’s disc jockeys, for the most part, are left to follow dictates from a corporate suite. And they rarely plant roots in one city.
In fact, they might not even physically be in the market where they are delivering weather or traffic reports, but in a soundproof booth in Los Angeles or someplace else.
So there won’t be any more Porky Chedwicks. Not because today’s radio personalities lack talent, but they are no longer allowed to fully exercise it.