By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
Traditionally, media companies with news organizations have shied away from taking sides on specific issues in order to project an aura of objectivity. Yet for several radio stations owned by Clear Channel, maintaining such an appearance may not be a terribly high priority. During the past several weeks, Clear Channel outlets in cities such as the company's home base of San Antonio have backed rallies intended to encourage and pay tribute to the allied forces battling in Iraq. And on March 29, the Fox -- a classic-rock purveyor that's one of eight Denver outlets owned by Clear Channel -- did likewise, staging a celebration of might and right at the Stampede, a large space in Aurora.
In the days leading up to the so-called "Lewis & Floorwax Pro-American Rally," information about the bash was hard to miss. Fox radio hosts Rick Lewis and Michael Floorwax talked about it frequently during their morning show, which is among the most popular in the metro area. A rally notice also turned up on the outlet's Web site, www.thefox.com, appearing near the top of the home page between a photo of a bikini-clad babe and a shot of a hawk-eyed man wearing a Miller Lite T-shirt and a mullet, an American flag displayed behind him. An early version of the blurb referred to the gathering as "a party in support of Americans" and "a great time for the whole family to come out and give support to our country, whether we are at war or not" -- wording that de-emphasized the conflict, albeit in a fairly transparent way. The text was made more explicit shortly thereafter, with the aforementioned support being directed exclusively to "our troops."
Despite these changes, Fox program director Garner Goin, who helped organize the rally, did his best not to make the event seem like a George W. Bush lovefest. "We want everyone to leave their politics at the door," he said prior to the rally. "It's not going to be pro-war or pro-Bush." When asked if someone who opposes the war would feel comfortable in such a setting, Goin replied, "That's the environment we're trying to create."
Maybe so -- but had Sean Penn showed up at the rally, he'd probably have been taken out in a body bag. Many of those on hand sported nationalistic garb -- "Let's Roll" shirts were commonplace -- as well as rah-rah placards often supplemented with photos of overseas loved ones. A Boy Scout troop led the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance, guitarist Johnny Vaughn of the Lewis and Floorwax-fronted rock band the Groove Hawgs performed a Jimi Hendrix-inspired version of "The Star Spangled Banner," and several speakers made a case for giving war a chance. Retired naval officer Pete Dunn, Clear Channel military analyst Bob Newman and a retired colonel once with special forces who goes by the name of Ray Z. must not have gotten the leave-the-politics-at-the-door memo, because they spoke freely about the wisdom of freeing Iraq, occasionally supplementing their remarks with a smattering of God-is-on-our-side rhetoric.
Attendance at the shindig was tough to gauge. During much of the first hour of the two-hour extravaganza, the 2,000-capacity Stampede was about half full, but Kathy Lee, producer of the Lewis and Floorwax show, says around 3,000 people were present for part or all of the spectacle. Either way, the turnout was modest in comparison with some others held around the country; an Associated Press report penned by Michael Rubinkam cited a March 22 get-together at Auburn, Indiana, that drew 15,000 people. That assembly, like many of the others taking place around the country, featured the participation of Glenn Beck, a Philadelphia radio host whose program is syndicated to over a hundred stations by Premier Radio Networks, which is owned by Clear Channel. In the AP article, Clear Channel spokeswoman Amir Forester pointed out that some of the Beck rallies were convened under the auspices of stations not held by the company -- in particular, a Philadelphia jamboree put on by an outlet owned by Infinity Broadcasting, a Clear Channel adversary with several Denver signals. Indeed, the one Colorado station that broadcasts Beck -- KFKA in Greeley -- isn't a Clear Channel property.
Attempts like this one to portray the rallies as homegrown responses to war rather than a Clear Channel corporate directive apparently failed to convince New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. In a March 25 piece reprinted in the Denver Post three days later, Krugman wrote, "The company claims that the demonstrations, which go under the name Rally for America, reflect the initiative of individual stations. But this is unlikely: According to Eric Boehlert, who has written revelatory articles about Clear Channel for Salon, the company is notorious -- and widely hated -- for its iron-fisted centralized control."
Krugman went on to list several possible reasons that the company had decided to "insert itself into politics" -- among them a lawsuit (filed by Denver's Nobody in Particular Presents) accusing it of assorted anti-competitive sins and the ire of politicians who believe media deregulation of the sort that led to Clear Channel's spectacular growth has gone too far. Another potential motivation mentioned by Krugman is the close connection between Clear Channel vice chairman Tom Hicks and the president, from whom Hicks purchased the Texas Rangers baseball franchise, making "Mr. Bush a multimillionaire." Krugman concluded that "if politicians are busy doing favors for businesses that support them, why shouldn't we expect businesses to reciprocate by doing favors for those politicians -- by, for example, organizing 'grassroots' rallies on their behalf?"