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.

Somers emphasizes that Clear Channel's DuCharme never used airplay as a bargaining chip and has no idea if Clear Channel would have nixed Toadies airplay had he stuck with NIPP. "I just played the odds," he says, "and the odds are on their side. Do I feel Clear Channel has an unfair competitive edge? Absolutely. But I understand what they're doing. If you own the car dealership and you own the car wash, it's good business to sell dirty cars."

Because Clear Channel is so vast, the experiences of those who have dealt with the company differ widely from place to place, market to market. Many insiders have no shortage of horrific tales about Clear Channel promoters in other cities, for instance, but not a single individual contacted for this story leveled analogous accusations at the people at Denver's Clear Channel Concerts division. Typical is a source who says, "Generally speaking, the conduct of Chuck Morris and the people he's got there is fine and ethical, and I've never had any problems dealing with them."

Chris Swank, Doug Kauffman and Jesse Morreale of Nobody in Particular Presents are standing up to Clear Channel.
John Johnston
Chris Swank, Doug Kauffman and Jesse Morreale of Nobody in Particular Presents are standing up to Clear Channel.
Clear Channel's FleetBoston Pavilion is the model for a planned Denver venue whose tent was previously used at Boston's Harborlights Pavilion.
Clear Channel's FleetBoston Pavilion is the model for a planned Denver venue whose tent was previously used at Boston's Harborlights Pavilion.

The story could hardly be more different when the subject shifts to the biggest wigs at Clear Channel's radio operation in Denver, with person after person bitching about the decision-makers there -- especially O'Connor and Richards. Radio is also at the heart of the NIPP complaint, for reasons having everything to do with the formats of Clear Channel's Denver FMs. NIPP specializes in rock acts, and Clear Channel has rock radio sewn up: Its portfolio includes the only alternative-rock station (KTCL), the only triple-A station (KBCO) and the only hard-rock station (KBPI). As such, NIPP must either attempt to buy time on a Clear Channel outlet or forgo radio advertising entirely.

Taking the former tack is getting more difficult all the time, NIPP's suit contends. Until recently, stations here and all over the country routinely helped promote concerts with which they weren't otherwise associated through ticket giveaways. Dollars were seldom exchanged, since the arrangement benefited the promoter, who received valuable publicity, and the radio station, which endeared itself to listeners by providing them with much-wanted freebies.

But Clear Channel put an end to this practice for outside promoters. One source outside Denver says the old practice was still in place in February of this year, but mere months later, the same Clear Channel station began charging thousands of dollars for the service. "At first I had no idea what was going on," the source says, "but then I read some articles, and I figured it out."

One such article, in the August 3 Los Angeles Times, included comments from NIPP promoter Morreale, who said that although his company had offered KBPI twenty giveaway tickets to a concert by the band Tool, "we were informed the new policy is that if we, as a non-Clear Channel promoter, want ticket giveaways on the air, we have to buy," as if it were any other advertisement. Morreale added, "We should have access to the same promotional opportunities as any other client, and that includes a client they own."

In reply, KBPI program director Richards was quoted as saying, "All we're doing is bringing concert promoters to the same level as our other sponsors and clients. If you don't spend a certain amount of money, we're not going to give you promotional reciprocity." Richards isn't kidding: House of Blues, Clear Channel's biggest local competitor, has gotten the exact same treatment.

A variation on this topic was addressed in the July 23 issue of Pollstar, a concert-industry trade publication. According to the piece, NIPP bought advertising on KTCL for an upcoming date of the Warped Tour, a punk-oriented festival, but received no on-air mentions by disc jockeys. Worse, NIPP's Morreale said, no tickets provided for giveaway were handed out over the air, with some of them being passed along to KTCL employees.

To that, Clear Channel's Mike O'Connor responded, "Our practice from this point forward is that concert promoters outside of SFX [now Clear Channel] that wish on-air mentions can pay for them." In retaliation, NIPP didn't allow KTCL to set up its van at the concert grounds.

This policy, and the repercussions it caused, incenses and baffles Kevin Lyman, producer of the Warped Tour. "We did a lot of shows on the Warped Tour with Clear Channel stations and SFX promoters, and they did a prime and fair job," he says. "But I thought Mike O'Connor played unfair ball. This is a business where everybody's out to kick everybody else's ass, but there are fair ways to do it, and he basically tried to turn Warped Tour artists against the tour, saying it was our fault they weren't able to be on the site and that they'll never support the Warped Tour again. So now you've got artists who are afraid they're going to be blackballed by Clear Channel, and that's wrong.

"I don't have anything against Clear Channel," Lyman goes on. "But the company grew so quickly, and whenever that happens, you're going to wind up with some bad eggs in the basket."

Another result of the bad blood in the Denver promotion business is an almost total lack of cooperation between the principal warriors. That's seen most vividly when it comes to the use of area venues.

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