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?"
Such theories are hooted down by management at Clear Channel stations in Denver. Fox program director Goin insists that the impetus behind the recent rally came from Lewis and Floorwax: "A couple days after 9/11, they played a street fair in Longmont, and they saw how coming together could be a really positive, healing thing. So when they wondered, 'What can we do now? How can we show support for our troops?,' they naturally thought of this." He disputes the inference that the Fox is following marching orders from corporate HQ, declaring, "The idea that this was crammed down our throat is absolutely false."
Elizabeth Estes-Cooper, program director for the Clear Channel-owned talker KHOW, echoes that statement. "No one's called me up from San Antonio and told me, 'We're very much behind this. We're Bush backers,'" she says. "I think each market is probably reflecting the views of a station's demographic makeup. You probably wouldn't see a Clear Channel station put on a rally in a community that wasn't for the war. But here, in this town, the predominant feeling is that people are backing what's going on over there."
As such, KHOW is clearly in full battle mode. Phil Hendrie, a syndicated host whose Clear Channel-owned show is heard weekday evenings on the station, normally specializes in satirical bits that find him doing voices for fictional guests -- but as soon as war was declared, he began presenting conventional talk with real callers. Consumer advocate Tom Martino, on early weekday afternoons, is working war-related questions about rising gas prices and the like into his basic format. As for afternoon-drive host Scott Redmond, he's transformed himself into such a pro-war cheerleader that it's a wonder pompoms can't be heard rustling as he speaks -- and his permanent pairing with the aforementioned Bob Newman is unlikely to transform him into Mahatma Gandhi anytime soon.
Redmond served as emcee for an attack-Iraq rally on the steps of the State Capitol the Sunday after the first shells were lobbed, but Estes-Cooper stresses that the event wasn't subsidized by the station. Not that there would have been anything wrong if it had been. "Scott isn't the guy delivering the news every day," she says. "He's not keeping his opinion out of it."
Neither are the Beastie Boys on their new anti-war tune, "In a World Gone Mad." One couplet suggests, "Let's lose the guns and let's lose the bombs/And stop the corporate contributions that they're built upon." Even so, KTCL, a local modern-rock station also owned by Clear Channel, spun the song approximately twenty times last week. Mike O'Connor, director of FM programming for Clear Channel Denver, acknowledges that the station did a great deal of research before getting down with the Boys, and the data itself, which O'Connor provided, is fascinating. More than 2,000 listeners took a survey about the track, and in answer to the question "How does the fact the song is a 'protest' song change your opinion about it?,' 34 percent said, "It makes me like the song more," 16 percent conceded, "It makes me like the song less," and 51 percent replied, "It doesn't change my opinion one way or the other."
The poll-takers, most of whom were in their teens and twenties, were given the chance to offer personal comments, too, and many of them are quite thoughtful. Some simply didn't like the cut, which is musically weak by the Beasties' high standards: "It's cool that artists are taking a stand, but honestly, this is the worst song the Beastie Boys have ever done," one person wrote. Others saw the song as trendy celebrity drool, with one listener saying, "I think half of them don't know what the hell they're talking about. So they're just doing some dumb publicity stunt." However, many more saw airing the song as a free-speech issue. A typical argument was: "We need more uncensored music." Perhaps that's why a plurality of the respondents -- 45 percent -- said that if they heard "In a World Gone Mad" on KTCL, they would turn it up, not off.
While O'Connor doesn't promise to keep playing the song indefinitely, he sees the move to place it on KTCL's playlist as proof that his corporate masters allow individual stations to make independent choices. "I didn't get in big trouble for doing it, and there's been no dictate to do a pro-American rally," he says.
Because the Fox, like KTCL, specializes in entertainment, not news, the ethics of it putting on a rally are a bit fuzzier than they might otherwise be. Still, the outlet airs news updates each hour, with many of the items touching upon Iraq; O'Connor says the only mandate he's received from Clear Channel is "to cover the war responsibly." In addition, battle-related subjects frequently crop up during the Fox's morning show. It may be disturbing to contemplate, but it's likely that there are thousands of locals whose primary sources of information about Gulf War II are Lewis and Floorwax.
Few who heard this twosome at the beginning of their Denver tenure would have predicted this turn of events, since the self-described "Masters" initially, and almost exclusively, operated on the fringes of shock-jock territory. If they commented on topical issues, they did so in the cheekiest, least politically correct manner possible, with laughs being the primary goal. Consider this exchange from early November 1990 (it was recounted in Westword later that month), in which the pair discussed the biggest hunks in Denver media as chosen by Quest, a gay-oriented publication:
Lewis: "Channel 7's Lance Hernandez."
Floorwax: "Yeah, Lance. Anybody named Lance you know is going to make it in a gay magazine."
Lewis: "Channel 4's Jim Benemann."
Floorwax: "Jim Bend-Over-Man? Is that what his name is? Jim Bend-Over-Man?"
During the more than twelve years since that show, the two haven't abandoned such adolescent shtick. Among the routines staged on more than one occasion of late was "Drunk Chick Friday," in which women were invited to the studio, provided with high-octane libation over the course of several hours and left to do and say stupid things. Thus far, Gloria Steinem has not volunteered to take part in this feature.
On many days, though, the tenor of the program, which can also be heard on XM Satellite radio, has been much less irreverent and unmistakably partisan when it comes to Iraq. These days, the Masters espouse a my-country-right-or-wrong philosophy that deems protesters as traitors giving aid and comfort to the enemy, a viewpoint that seemed to have been discredited during the late '60s and early '70s -- the era from which a great deal of classic rock stems -- but now is back in vogue. Typical was the March 27 broadcast, in which war came up time and time again. Lewis and Floorwax even sent a verbal bouquet to British prime minister Tony Blair during a conversation with antediluvian keyboardist Brian Auger, who many of us were sure had caught a ride on the Oblivion Express long ago.
Later, as a transition from a commercial break, the Fox's board operator cranked Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A.," the sentiments of which Floorwax praised in a fairly Ronald Reagan-like way; back in the '80s, Reagan latched on to the song without realizing that it's actually a bleak portrait of an embittered Vietnam vet for whom it definitely wasn't morning in America. When it faded, Lewis mentioned that he thought Springsteen had signed an advertisement in Rolling Stone opposing hostilities in Iraq before war broke out. Floorwax didn't have much of a problem with that. To him, opposing war before it was declared was fine -- but afterward, it's a different story. Floorwax had harsher words for bicyclist Lance Armstrong, who recently said he doesn't represent one side or the other as concerns the war, regardless of his promotional relationship with the United States Postal Service. In Floorwax's mind, Armstrong is guilty of the purest hypocrisy for taking government money without defending government policy.
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Of course, Lewis and Floorwax's insistence that their "pro-American rally" wasn't also, in Goin's words, "pro-war" and "pro-Bush," makes them guilty of exactly the same thing. Clear Channel execs may not have demanded that all its stations gather listeners to cheer the old red, white and blue, but they certainly aren't punishing those that do, no matter how biased it makes them seem.
DNA test: As was made clear in a recent column ("Penetrate This," February 27), the Denver Newspaper Agency has turned into a very lucrative enterprise. Indeed, a March 26 Rocky Mountain News report by David Milstead pegged the DNA's profits in 2002 at $67.6 million, a thirteen-fold increase over the previous year. The next day, a Denver Post article offered clues about how the agency will try to keep the greenbacks flowing in the future; journalist Kelly Pate wrote that the DNA "will lay off up to ten people in its prepress division within thirty days." These weren't the first layoffs at the agency -- an employee in the new-media department had been given word of an impending heave-ho about a week earlier -- but they were the most substantial cuts to date. In an agreement with various unions that had supported the joint operating agreement between the News and the Post, the DNA had pledged not to eliminate positions for a two-year period, which ended a few short weeks ago. Now that the handcuffs are off, expect the ax to swing more freely.
Another instance of penny-pinching is even more telling. On March 19, the blizzard of 2003 was at full roar, and officials such as Governor Bill Owens asked citizens not to leave their homes unless there was an emergency. Yet DNA employees who followed this command were informed that they would have to use a vacation day, a personal day or an unpaid day off to make up for their absence. DNA spokeswoman Fran Wills puts it bluntly: "Our policy for employees who were unable to attend work is in compliance with our company guidelines -- that we compensate employees for time worked."
With compassion like that, next year's profits should be through the roof.