WASHINGTON - In the latest version of musical efforts to promote social consciousness and challenge the government, some rock, blues and country artists have embarked on a tour to fight changes in federal rules governing ownership of newspapers, television and radio stations.
Billy Bragg, Lester Chambers, Steve Earle and other artists on the "Tell Us the Truth Tour" contend the rules from the Federal Communications Commission will make it harder for many performers to get airtime. The musicians are making their case in song in a tour that began Friday in Madison, Wis., and ends Nov. 24 in Washington.
The tough part, says British folk-rock artist Bragg, may be find a way to work "Federal Communications Commission" into any of his lyrics.
"Entertainment's the most important thing. These gigs will be entertaining, I promise you," Bragg said. "The most we can do is offer the audience a different perspective and make people understand that music doesn't just come out of the radio."
While the tour is meant to inspire grass-roots activism on the issue, some well-known Washington political players are also involved. The tour, which also addresses trade issues, is partly sponsored by the AFL-CIO and Common Cause. Both are pressing Congress to undo the FCC rules, which eliminated decades-old ownership restrictions.
Several major media companies pushed for the change, arguing the old rules predated the growth of cable, satellite broadcasting and the Internet and harmed their ability to compete.
Several AFL-CIO affiliates, such as the Communication Workers of America and the Screen Actors Guild, are affected by the rules, said Joe Uehlein, the AFL-CIO's director of strategic communications. As the media industry consolidates, jobs are lost, he said.
Uehlein declined to say how much the union was paying to help sponsor the tour.
"We view it as a way to communicate our message through nontraditional means," he said. "Music has always been central to our movement."
It's unclear what the public's appetite is for music with a message. Although the nation has a long history of protest music, entertainers who have blended politics with performances have gotten mixed receptions over the years.
Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land" was written as a protest song, Bragg noted, and wound up becoming a classic. Guthrie composed it as an alternative to Irving Berlin's hit "God Bless America" to make the point that the country belonged to the poor as well as the rich.
Popular music was entwined with Vietnam War protests in the 1960s and '70s. Several musicians, including Michael Jackson, Bob Dylan, Tina Turner, Bruce Springsteen and Willie Nelson, came together to record "We Are the World" in 1985 and raise millions for hunger relief in Africa.
On the other hand, Bragg said his songs about the Iran-Contra scandal and Nicaragua in the 1980s got little attention.
More recently, the Dixie Chicks were thrown off several country music stations, including outlets owned by big media chains, for criticizing President Bush. Last April, dozens of fans booed and walked out of a Pearl Jam concert in Denver after lead singer Eddie Vedder criticized the war in Iraq and Bush, impaling a mask of Bush on a microphone stand.
Rachel Einwohner, a Purdue University sociology professor and expert on protests, said the music itself is just one factor in how it is received.
"We Are the World" was about a noncontroversial topic and drew frequent airplay and other support by heavyweights in the music industry, for example, she said.
"It's the music plus who's doing the singing and what kind of backing do they have, and what broader environment are they in and what cause are they fighting for," Einwohner said.
The tour includes stops in Chicago, Indianapolis, New York, Boston, Atlanta, Nashville and Miami.