Taking on the Empire

Page 3 of 10

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.

The Telecommunication Act of 1996, a bill that businessmen love and folks who oppose monopolization see as an absolute calamity, changed all that. The legislation, signed into law by President Clinton, doubled the limits of station ownership in a single market from four to eight (Clear Channel is at the cutoff point in Denver) and lifted the barrier on the number of stations a company could possess overall; just ten years ago, the maximum number of stations one company could own was 28. With the sky suddenly the limit, Clear Channel went on a spending spree. At the end of 1997, following the acquisition of a 43-station group owned by Paxson Communications Corporation, the company owned 173 stations -- a number that had grown to 870 by 1999, when Clear Channel picked up AMFM Inc. for $23.5 billion.

Subsequent purchases have continued at such a dizzying pace that the present 1,200-station figure is only an estimate. Tomorrow there may be more -- a point underlined by a news parody floating around the Internet titled "Clear Channel's Heavenly Acquisition," which reports that the company will take over "the popular afterlife destination sometime in the early fall." In the piece, an executive calls the deal "a great achievement for a great company. We're pleased with Heaven. However, there will be a few changes taking place in the next couple of years."

Such as? "The Pearly Gates have been replaced by a plastic shower curtain."

As this one-liner implies, Clear Channel was initially known less for its brutality than for its stinginess. Radio observers did and do call it "Cheap Channel," in tribute to its zeal for cutting costs to the bone -- and sometimes beyond it. An oft-cited example is Clear Channel's fondness for voicetracking, a technique that allows a DJ in one city to seemingly host local shows in as many as half a dozen others ("Live From Denver -- Almost," December 16, 1999). Clear Channel executive Sean Compton defended voicetracking earlier this month at Morning Show Boot Camp, an annual radio convention staged this year in Las Vegas, with this statement: "It makes too much sense to take the best resources in our company and spread them out to all our stations."

Radio & Records, the music-industry publication and Web site that reported Compton's remarks, was accused of being in thrall to Clear Channel in an August 6 Salon article. The Web site hinted that when R&R reduced the number of stations it surveys to determine its playlists from 200 to 140, it did so at the behest of Clear Channel, which gains even greater sway under the new system.

Ron Rodrigues, R&R's editor-in-chief, denies this charge -- but he also thinks it's unreasonable to blame Clear Channel for voicetracking's proliferation. As he points out, plenty of companies now use the technique, which was innovated by Capstar Broadcasting, a onetime AMFM subsidiary that Rodrigues says set up de facto boiler-room operations he calls "voicetracking farms," which were manned by DJs who never had to set foot in the radio stations that broadcast their shows. Still, he concedes, Clear Channel "is the biggest practitioner of it simply because, in terms of scale, they're the biggest at anything they do. After all, they own around four times as many stations as their nearest competitor. That's why they're such a target of people who don't like consolidation -- because they're kind of the ultimate representation of what happens when industries consolidate. Much as we hate our banks and our supermarkets, we're starting to hate our radio stations."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts