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Taking on the Empire

A local lawsuit against the world's largest radio/concert firm threatens to expose the dark side of the entertainment business.

But in an interview in late June, six weeks prior to the filing of the suit, Howe -- whose stations play up Clear Channel's muscle via the slogan "Feel the Power!" -- spoke freely about some of the issues that ultimately found their way into the NIPP document. At the time, Howe had a good idea that NIPP was gathering evidence against Clear Channel, thanks to an e-mail that a former NIPP employee inadvertently sent to more than twenty people with Clear Channel affiliations, as well as to journalists throughout the area (including two at Westword). In the message, the ex-employee, who declined to comment for this story beyond confirming the accuracy of the e-mail, wrote, "I really liked what I did at NIPP, [but] unfortunately there was a conflict of interest...They wanted me to compile information on Clear Channel in an illegal way for a potential lawsuit...All I have to say is, Linda Tripp."

"That former employee resigned because the employee was asked to tape conversations, and after the employee declined, the employee found out that these conversations were in fact being taped," Howe said in June, noting, "We heard that Jesse [Morreale] was doing it."

(In response, Morreale says, "We have not done anything illegal, nor did we ask this employee or any other employee to do anything illegal. If, in the course of the case, information that backs up the claims that we have made in the complaint comes to light and that information is documented, that's simply a result of Clear Channel's actions and us documenting them, and not because we did anything illegal.")

"The whole thing is pretty ridiculous, really," Howe said back in June. "There are rival concert promoters who like to cry foul when they don't get an act and we do, but there's no truth to the rumors that we conduct business in the ways they say we do. Without commenting on anything specific, I would say that anytime you are a leader within your industry, you're going to take shots from people. But Clear Channel is a wonderful organization, and we're on a tremendous growth curve. We have a lot of assets to pull together for the greater benefit of our advertisers and listeners -- and generally the only comments to the contrary we hear are from competitors who either don't have the same advantages or just haven't figured out how to keep up with us."

Even Clear Channel critics who fit this description are often reticent to go public; in the end, only a few agreed to let their names be used by Westword. But well over a dozen more, representing radio-station personnel, agents, managers, promoters and record-label staffers, spoke after being promised that they would remain anonymous and that no clues (such as band names) would be included that might allow those at Clear Channel to identify them. An equal number of others said that while they'd heard such stories, they hadn't experienced such mistreatment personally.

While the Clear Channel detractors universally applauded NIPP for stepping forward, they disagreed about the odds of victory. Several said that Clear Channel uses implication and inference to get its way, rather than the sort of blatant intimidation that would look bad in court, and others doubted that NIPP has the financial wherewithal to bring such a giant to its knees. But taken as a whole, their observations paint a picture of a company with virtually limitless strength and influence that regularly pushes the edges of good taste, fair play and, many argue, legality, even as it inflames passions and frustrations like only a few corporations in the history of American business.

"These guys can crush you from so many angles it's incredible," says a source. "They sit there and look you in the eye and basically tell you they'll fuck with you. They're just evil fucks."


Anyone expecting the government to slow Clear Channel's march toward global domination is bound to be disappointed. Even before his election, George W. Bush signaled that he had different opinions than Bill Clinton about what constitutes a monopoly, saying that he preferred "innovation over litigation" in reference to the prosecution of Microsoft for alleged anti-competitive practices.

Since Bush took office, the Justice Department, under Attorney General John Ashcroft, hasn't gone after any other big fish -- and Clear Channel almost certainly will not be the first on the hook. The company's chairman, L. Lowry Mays, is a personal friend of Bush's father, ex-president George Bush, and has made sizable donations to the senior Bush's proposed presidential library. Furthermore, the Associated Press reported in June, Clear Channel donated $80,000 to the Republican National Committee last year, and Mays and his wife, Peggy, personally gave the Republican Party and/or the George W. Bush campaign over $30,000 more.

Mays hasn't always been such a player. When Clear Channel got its start in 1972, it did so in relatively modest fashion, with the purchase of a single radio station, KAJA-FM. (Mays was assisted in the deal by Red McCombs, who once owned the Denver Nuggets and now holds the deed on the Minnesota Vikings football team.) In 1984 the company acquired Broad Street Communications, which sported radio properties in Oklahoma City, New Orleans and New Haven, Connecticut. Four years later, the purchase of a TV station in Mobile, Alabama, spurred the creation of a television branch. Yet in 1995 the company was a mere mouse compared to its current elephantine self, with just 16 TV stations and 43 radio stations in 32 markets.

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