Why Should I Care About Clear Channel

By - Jun 1st, 2003 02:52 pm
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By Jessamyn West

“Clear Channel Radio is positioned to exploit the synergies of scale in a way no other company can duplicate. We reach over 110-million listeners every week, across all 50 states and through nearly every format.”– Clear Channel Annual Report

I like to listen to the radio. My old car has an old radio. It has two knobs. I frequently listen while I drive. Until right after September 11th, I had never heard of Clear Channel. As I drove from California to Milwaukee in the third week of September of 2001, Clear Channel was doing a fundraising drive for the victims of the attack. I suddenly noticed just how many stations Clear Channel owned. In state after state I would hear the exact same fund drive on many different stations, different kinds of stations, even. I thought that was pretty cool. Then came the rumors of the “banned list” of songs that Clear Channel supposedly wouldn’t let their stations play in a post-9/11 world, including works by Bob Dylan and John Lennon.

Controlling the media — one Chick at a time.

Though the story wasn’t true, exactly (see Further Reading links), it made me, and many people, aware of the power of large monopolistic broadcasters, specifically ones that control news media outlets. More recently, there was the Dixie Chicks fiasco, in which the band’s singer was forced to apologize for saying that she was “ashamed” that our Commander in Chief comes from Texas. While Clear Channel claimed it did not order any of its 1200+ stations to stop playing the Dixie Chicks, many Clear Channel stations still did, declaring themselves nearly simultaneously “Chicks free” coast to coast. Second place station-owner Cumulus Media — who owns “only” 262 stations — directly ordered all its country stations to stop playing the band’s songs.

At the same time, Clear Channel was also (ironically) madly promoting the Dixie Chicks’ US Tour; tickets went on sale a week before the controversy broke. Why? In 2000, Clear Channel purchased SFX, the largest and most powerful concert promoter in the country at the time. After these and several other purchases, Clear Channel became “the nation’s No. 1 radio chain, billboard owner, venue operator, and concert promoter” according to Business Week.

Like the President, and the Dixie Chicks, Clear Channel also comes from Texas. Their vice chairman, Tom Hicks, bought the Texas Rangers in 1998 for $250 million from a group headed by then-Governor Bush. Clear Channel’s CEO, Lowry Mays, donated over $100,000 to the Republican party.

Brave New Business Plan: own the news and make it, too.

Clear Channel is the major (possibly only) funder behind “Rally for America,” the group organizing many of the larger pro-war rallies, supplying money for signs, advertising the events on their stations, and then doing “news” reporting on the rallies themselves. These actions smack of creating news, not just simply reporting it. Whether you love, hate, or are indifferent to the Dixie Chicks, or even the war, the consolidation and homogenization of broadcasting in the US is a topic worthy of concern. What changed to make Clear Channel such a powerful force, and when?

Deregulation: a cure for chronic diversity!

The first step was the FCC’s repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987. This rule, dating back to 1949, required broadcasters — who are using the publicly owned airwaves for free, let’s not forget — to cover controversial issues within their communities and to air opposing viewpoints. If you are my age (30s and up) you may remember the weird five minute editorials that would sometimes come on TV with those odd looking people (i.e., not newscasters or actors) speaking their minds about some random thing. The FCC argued that fairness wasn’t necessary because the “multiplicity of voices” in the marketplace already offered “viewpoint diversity.”

However, in the late 90s, with the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, big media got a big boost from big government. Not only were media companies suddenly allowed to own a greater number of stations in a given market, and also allowed to own a station and a newspaper in the same market, but the FCC was required to comprehensively review and justify their own regulations every two years. See ya’, multiplicity of voices! Clear Channel tripled their annual revenue and increased their station holdings by two thirds, nearly overnight. The FCC is reviewing their regulations on broadcast media ownership this month (a decision may be out by the time you read this) potentially allowing even more cross-ownership among radio and TV stations and newspapers.

Where in (your) world is Clear Channel?

Just for a bit of local flavor — of which you will find little with Clear Channel — here’s a list of the stations Clear Channel owns regionally. There are six radio stations in Milwaukee: WOKY-AM (920), WISN-AM (1130), WRIT-FM (95.7), WLTQ-FM (97.3), WKKV-FM (100.7) and WMIL-FM (106.1). And there are six in Chicago: WGCI-FM (107.5), WGCI-AM (1390), WKSC-FM (103.5), WLIT-FM (93.9), WNUA-FM (95.5) and WVAZ-FM (102.7). Clear Channel also has eight radio stations each in DC, LA, Denver, and Houston, with nine in San Diego. Can you even think of nine stations in your local area? It’s a stretch for me.

Through its buyout of SFX, Clear Channel promotes six venues each in NYC, Philly and San Francisco. In LA, New York and Chicago it owns the rights to over 13,000 outdoor advertising spaces. Each. They own every rock station in Denver. They own almost 800,000 billboards.

You may be wondering: Yeah, they are big, so what? But there are quite a few reasons why bigger might not necessarily be better.

“Bigger is better”Ö for whom?

1. The 800 pound gorilla issue: Clear Channel reaches 110 million listeners in a week. By comparison, the Internet, the entire Internet, reaches between 60 and 70 million people in the US. This enables Clear Channel to set prices on advertising, make exclusive deals with advertisers, afford to give free ad space to causes they agree with, determine the commercial success or failure of nearly any musical group or album, and generally throw its weight around. Since advertisers pay the bills on broadcast radio, this gives corporate America just one more stranglehold on what was formerly, at least at times, a means of conveying personal expression.

2. The cross-pollination issue: Clear Channel has already been taken to court by independent music promoters claiming they are locked out of advertising on Clear Channel stations, and bands have complained that it is tougher to get played on the radio or to find venues to play in. Clear Channel has a finite amount of broadcasting time, so is it a surprise that they use it to play the artists who are playing their venues?

3. The homogenization/company culture factor: Clear Channel is a strong right-wing, pro-war, family values sort of outfit. This didn’t stop Tampa morning host (and Clear Channel employee) Todd Clem from castrating and killing a pig live on his show. He was suspended for 15 days and then he went back on the air. It also seems important, somehow, whether the pro (or anti-) war rally is being organized by the people in your town, or by big donors to a political party. Or, as Chris Parker from the Cleveland Scene puts it “[H]ow would you feel about a New York Times “pro-troops” rally?”

4. The (lack of) accountability factor: What the hell happened to the 20 million dollars raised by the Clear Channel Relief Fund in the months after 9/11? Why does the page for donations linked to by all of their affiliate stations not exist any more? Why didn’t they return my email asking them this? Why is there no search feature on their website?

5. The we-don’t-care-about-you factor: Clear Channel has also been the subject of lawsuits claiming that they end-run employees by using a technique called “voice tracking,” in which a pre-recorded voice is used instead of a live on-air host to announce call letters, the weather, and even to introduce songs and read the news.

Satellite-fed voice tracking announcers have even, in some cases, been required to misrepresent themselves as local DJs. This works okay, perhaps, until the DJ mispronounces the name of the town that the station is in. Or until there’s a tornado. On September 11th some Clear Channel stations were still playing music for four hours after the event. They took great pains to make sure this didn’t happen during the Iraq war.

It’s an easy jab to say that Clear Channel sucks because their music is repetitive, their politics are lame, or they’re not accountable enough to the community. The reality is much more complex. Clear Channel is worrisome because they want to be in your future, possibly even more than you want to keep them out of it. They have the resources to do it, and they are acquiring more. To quote a chilling clip from their 2001 shareholder letter:

“Customers and consumers are always surprised about the depth of our properties. We reach you on your radio, TV and on the billboards you see on your highways. We probably produce much of the entertainment — concerts, family shows, sporting events, theater productions and festivals — you attend…. Clear Channel reaches millions through media and entertainment every day! That’s powerful reach for our clients to put to good use to sell their products.”

Brrrrrr.

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