Clear Channel, a San Antonio-based corporation that dominates the radio and concert industries, hasn't gotten a lot of good press lately in Denver, where the conglomerate is being sued in U.S. District Court by a smaller competitor, Nobody in Particular Presents, for a plethora of allegedly anti-competitive practices ("Taking on the Empire," August 23). But while in the past Clear Channel has shrugged off such criticism as casually as a Brahma bull scatters flies, the company recently took a different tack. In the weeks leading up to October 5, when the firm's attorneys filed a hard-knuckled motion to dismiss the NIPP suit, Clear Channel launched a campaign to rehabilitate its forbidding image.
In doing so, Clear Channel built upon the good works it's been trumpeting since last month's terrorist attacks. On September 14, three days after the strikes, a trio of Denver properties -- KOA, KHOW and KTLK -- staged a fundraiser that netted around $300,000 for relief-oriented causes; that total has grown to more than $900,000 locally, with further millions raised chain-wide.
On October 4, the company used the assaults to justify settling a defamation lawsuit filed by fourteen SWAT officers against KHOW host Peter Boyles and Jacor Broadcasting, a company subsequently subsumed by Clear Channel. The officers' suit, prompted by the assertions of James Kearney, a retired FBI agent who argued on Boyles's show last year that cops covered up their slaying of immigrant Ismael Mena following a no-knock raid on the wrong house, was probably going nowhere. Even so, Clear Channel offered a $55,000 settlement -- it will go to police communications equipment -- because "in light of recent tragic events affecting the entire nation, the officers, Jacor and Mr. Boyles have determined that the resources which would have been devoted by each side to this litigation should be directed toward the community."
October 3 saw even more overt spin-doctoring. An hour of Boyles's popular morning program was devoted to conversations with four Clear Channel executives: Chuck Morris, head of Denver's Clear Channel concert branch; Jack Evans, senior vice president of programming for Clear Channel Radio; Howard Schacter, vice president of public relations for Clear Channel Entertainment; and Steve Smith, the entertainment division's chief operating officer. The NIPP lawsuit wasn't at the center of this session, and neither was a controversial Clear Channel list of 150 songs rendered potentially objectionable by terrorism, even though Evans, a former KBPI program director, was the man behind it. Instead, the focus remained on the men's reaction to the destruction back East, as well as Clear Channel's efforts on behalf of injured parties and listeners alike.
Afterward, Schacter, Morris and Smith conducted sit-downs with area media, including Westword, to preview their defense against NIPP's lawsuit. Smith, who found himself at Clear Channel after it bought SFX, a massive concert outfit that purchased the Album Network, which he founded, acknowledged that his company hadn't previously gone out of its way to meet the press. "We weren't trying to be inaccessible. We were just busy," he said, pointing to Clear Channel's spectacular growth. Because so many firms were acquired so quickly, creating a workforce estimated at 30,000, Smith joked that he and his colleagues found it a challenge simply "learning each other's names."
With so many people operating under Clear Channel's auspices, Smith conceded that he couldn't vouch for each and every one of their actions: "I'm certainly not going to make any speculations about what some Clear Channel radio employee said in Denver." But he scoffed at the suggestion that Clear Channel staffers tell touring artists they'll lose airplay in Denver and beyond if they work with other promoters, as the NIPP suit alleges. "There's always the fear of the all-powerful man behind the curtain controlling Oz," he said. "It's just not the way things work." Despite evidence to the contrary, including the widespread use of voicetracking, which allows a single DJ to appear on radio outlets in multiple markets, Smith maintained that all of the company's radio stations are programmed independently and that any station manager or music director "would walk out the door" if he was told to yank a song by a certain singer just because the performer angered Clear Channel types elsewhere.
Smith also belittled NIPP's claims of monopoly, producing a pie chart showing that Clear Channel controls only 28 percent of Denver's live-entertainment market, as compared with rival House of Blues' 18 percent and NIPP's 6 percent. Of course, the inclusion of figures from sources such as the Denver Ballet account for much of the remaining total -- something that NIPP partner Jesse Morreale sees as telling. "I guess they could throw in the Broncos, too," he says. "But that's not really at issue. What matters is how Clear Channel uses its power to illegally exclude other people from being successful.
"The PR work they're doing doesn't effect the activities they're involved in," Morreale adds. "No matter how many times they go on their own radio stations and talk about how great they are, it doesn't change the facts."
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Neither did it soften the tone of the motion to dismiss assembled by Clear Channel's legal team. In a 48-page memorandum supporting the motion, the attorneys present an extremely well-researched rebuttal (over seventy precedents are cited) using swaggering, often sarcastic language typified by a line from its introduction: "Plaintiff's real complaint is not that Clear Channel competes illegally, but too effectively."
This cocky stance is in keeping with the behavior associated with Clear Channel by its critics. Yet although Smith laughed at an account of a dirty trick played by a company station in Denver against a rival -- "That's pretty funny," he said after being told about a truckload of rocks being dumped in front of an amphitheater box office -- he generally tried to present a vision of a kinder, gentler Clear Channel.
"I wish that we had a 100 percent approval rating from everyone who's ever crossed the path of a Clear Channel radio station or entertainment operation," Smith said. "Obviously, we don't. But that gives us something we can work on tomorrow."