MEDIA FILE, September 2002
Title: “Clear Channel Stumbles”
Author: Jeff Perlstein
Faculty Evaluator: Scott Gordon Ph.D., Jorge Porras Ph.D.
Student Researcher: Melissa Jones, Chris Salvano
Corporate Media Partial Coverage: Now With Bill Moyers, April 26, 2002 and April 4, 2003; The New York Times, January 30, 2003 and February 3, 2003; The Wall Street Journal, January 31, 2003
Clear Channel Communications of San Antonio, Texas may not yet be a household name, but in the past seven years the radio station conglomerate has rocketed to a place alongside NBC and Gannett as one of the largest media companies in the United States.
Before passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, a company could not own more than 40 radio stations in the entire country. With the Act’s sweeping relaxation of ownership limits, the cap on radio ownership was eliminated. As a result, Clear Channel has dominated the industry by growing from 40 radio stations nationally in the mid-90s, to approximately 1225 stations nationally by 2003. The station also dominates the audience share in 100 of 112 major markets. In addition to its radio stations, Clear Channel also owns television station affiliates, billboards, outdoor advertising, and owns or exclusively books the vast majority of concert venues, amphitheaters, and clubs in the country. According to NOW with Bill Moyers, in 2000 Clear Channel purchased the nation’s largest concert and events promoter, and in 2001, the Clear Channel did 70% of national ticket sales.
In 2001, Denver concert promoter, Jesse Morreale, sued Clear Channel. Morreale’s suit claims that Clear Channel’s use of its billboards to advertise Clear Channel-booked shows at Clear Channel-owned music is in essence a monopoly. The suit also alleges that Clear Channel stations have threatened to withdraw certain music from rotation unless the artist’s book concerts through Clear Channel and play at Clear Channel-owned music venues.
Clear Channel has also drawn criticism for using “voice tracking.” Voice tracking is when one DJ produces a standardized national broadcast and formats it into their radio stations nationwide- giving the semblance of a local broadcast. By this process, Clear Channel can produce its radio format in San Antonio, Texas and play it on its 1225 radio stations without regard to local music, culture, or issues.
In January 2002, a train carrying 10,000 gallons of anhydrous ammonia derailed in the town of Minot, causing a spill and a toxic cloud. Authorities attempted to warn the residents of Minot to stay indoors and to avoid the spill. But when the authorities called six of the seven radio stations in Minot to issue the warning, no one answered the phones. As it turned out, Clear Channel owned all six of the stations and none of the station’s personnel were available at the time.
Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota grilled Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Michael Powell over the consolidation of media in the U.S., using the Minot incident as a warning and an example. At a Senate Commerce Committee meeting Dorgan warned that as large media companies, like Clear Channel, buy up the last remaining independent media outlets across the country, the public suffers. According to chairman Powell, there is strong evidence that a lot of times local independent run stations cannot afford to produce quality local news. However, a recent study by Columbia University’s Project for Excellence in Journalism found that TV stations owned by smaller media firms generally produce better newscasts.
Such branding and consolidation is counter to the FCC’s mandate of encouraging media diversity. The FCC is doing very little about the results of increased media concentration. This may be a result of the relationship that exits between the FCC commissioners and the broadcast companies and their lobbyists. According to the Center for Public Integrity (CPI), media companies and lobbyists developed a very cozy relationship. As Chuck Lewis of CPI notes, “We found that 1400 trips [by FCC commissioners]- all expense paid trips – were paid for by broadcasters. How can the FCC judge and discuss media ownership if they’re taking trips from these guys?”
The FCC is in fact investigating one complaint made against Clear Channel. An advertiser in Ohio claims that Clear Channel is circumventing existing ownership limits by operating stations through shell companies in a practice known as “parking” or “warehousing” stations. Clear Channel has sold off stations to alleged front companies, which allows Clear Channel to continue operating the properties while also providing an easy way to buy back the stations, now that the FCC has further relax ownership limits.
On June 2, 2003, the FCC approved new ownership limit caps giving a green light for further media consolidation. (see chapter 2 #1 2003 and Amy Goodman’s Introduction)
UPDATE BY JEFF PERLSTEIN: It’s nine months since I wrote this article, and Clear Channel is now widely seen as the “poster child” for what’s wrong with our hyper-consolidated media environment and the free-market government policies that are to blame.
One strong indicator that media activists have succeeded in moving this issue into the political mainstream and building political pressure is the recent June 2nd vote at the FCC that loosened a whole host of restrictions on broadcast media – except in the area of radio ownership. In fact, the Commissioners actually voted to tighten some of the radio rules and Congressional Anti-trust committees are following up to examine anti-competitive practices in the industry.
But these days one need not look to DC to hear about the latest Clear Channel debacle. Egregious examples of the company’s behavior are part and parcel of water cooler conversations, hundreds of email lists and websites, and regular coverage by the independent media. Just ask people and they’ll recite the litany for you: the banning of the Dixie Chicks and more than 200 peace-related songs including “Imagine” by John Lennon; the many station-sponsored pro-war rallies; the intense union busting; automated on-air programming and the train wreck in Minot, North Dakota; and the “derelict rodeo roundup”.
Yes, the so-called “derelict rodeo roundup” was pioneered in Spring of 2003 by a Clear Channel station in Cincinnati, in which employees give homeless people a $20 bill, a 40 ounce bottle of malt liquor, and a bus ticket to the edge of town. Unconscionable behavior like this has fanned the flames of public outrage and provided the opportunity for media activists to build powerful coalition with mediaworkers’ unions, peace and justice networks, artists, youth organizers, attorneys, hip hop activists, children’s advocates, women’s rights groups, and more.
Not only did these coalitions succeed in using Clear Channel as a lightning rod to mobilize unprecedented numbers against further deregulation by the FCC, but they’re following up to build on the momentum at the local and national levels.
Community-driven campaigns in New York City and the SF Bay Area are providing powerful models for engaging communities in holding corporate media accountable to their needs and ensuring local voices are a part of the mix. The Turn Off the Radio Campaign in New York is a media boycott taking place each Thursday for 12 hours, in which participants refrain from listening to radio and TV stations that broadcast a disproportionate share of offensive material.
The Community Coalition for Media Accountability (CCMA) in the Bay Area worked with youth-led organizations to issue a report rigorously documenting how local Clear Channel station KMEL-FM’s non-music coverage was dominated by crime, drugs, and violence. Founded by the Youth Media Council and Media Alliance, the CCMA has followed up to build broad coalition and win a number of concessions from the region’s #1 hip hop and R&B station. The coalition is actively encouraging allies in cities around the country to seize this model and adapt it in ways that make sense and are powerful.
On the national level, Clear Channel is facing a rapidly growing number of legal challenges, Congressional hearings and investigations, and targetted campaigns by a variety of unions. Congressional co-sponsorship and public support is growing for Senator Feingold’s bill targetting Clear Channel’s brutal domination of the radio and concert industries.
Even the corporate media couldn’t ignore the growing public outrage and organized pressure by media activists. Clear Channel’s behavior and the policies that created this monster were finally picked up by The Wall Street Journal and a handful of other Big Media outlets.
At this writing, the grassroots momentum for accountability and transformation of corporate media structures continues to build, and Clear Channel is worried – the company recently hired a top Wall Street PR firm to deal with their “image problem”.
Please continue to bolster the work of independent media and support the organizing for true media justice.
Executive Director, Media Alliance
Co-founder, http://www.indymedia.org and the Seattle Independent Media Center