The rules on radio station ownership in the US used to be simple. Before the 1996 Telecommunications Act, a radio group could only own two stations in one market, and no more than 28 nationwide.
These rules were torn up in 1996. A Texan company called Clear Channel Communications swiftly went on a $30 billion dollar spending spree, buying more than 70 other media companies as well as individual stations.
It now owns over 1,200 radio stations and more than 30 television stations in the US. Based in San Antonio, where its founder Lowry Mays started with one radio station in 1972, it has now built up a global empire spanning radio, concert promotion and billboard advertising.
Worldwide Clear Channel has media outlets in 66 countries and owns 700,000 billboards. It is in a leading position in Britain’s outdoor advertising market through its ownership of Clear Channel Billboards, Adshel and Taxi Media.
It has a controlling stake in the concert and music promotion group, Mean Fiddler, which organises several music festivals, including Glastonbury, V, Reading and Leeds, as well as the Homelands and Download festivals.
It owns London’s Hammersmith Apollo and Dominion theatres, and the majority of medium size music venues, including the Brixton Academy, Astoria and The Mean Fiddler. Its concert business also promotes large outdoor concerts in Hyde Park and several concert venues across the country.
But the very scale and scope of its operations, particularly in the US, has led to a number of controversies about its politicised business operations and allegations of abuse of market power in order to boost profits and stifle criticism.
For example, in 2003 Clear Channel gave its support for George Bush’s push for war in Iraq, promoting pro-war “Rallies for America”. After Natalie Maines, lead singer of the Texan country band Dixie Chicks, criticised Bush while on stage in Britain, country music stations owned by Clear Channel banned their music.
The company claims this was solely the work of local station managers, but others believe the boycott was instigated by Clear Channel executives to send a message to other musicians taking an anti-war stance, warning that it could hurt their careers.
During a speech at the National Press Club in April 2003, actor and outspoken anti-war activist Tim Robbins told reporters, “A famous middle aged rock’n’roller called me last week to thank me for speaking out against the war, only to go on to tell me that he could not speak himself because he fears repercussions from Clear Channel. ‘They promote our concert appearances,’ he said. ‘They own most of the stations that play our music. I can’t come out against this war’.”
Clear Channel often has the epithet “Cheap Channel” attached to it. The firm pioneered technology that allows DJs to sound as if they are broadcasting from anywhere in the country.
This technique means many smaller market stations are covered by “cyberjocks” who have never visited the town they are broadcasting to.
Eric Boehlert has written some devastating articles on the dubious business practices of Clear Channel, which you can read on www.salon.com. “Cyberjocking has eliminated hundreds, if not thousands, of DJ positions by simply having one company jock send out his or her show to dozens of sister stations,” he writes.
One consequence of automated radio stations is that they do not have anyone on the spot when disaster strikes to inform people about safety precautions. On 18 January 2002 a Canadian Pacific train carrying a toxic chemical derailed near Minot, North Dakota, releasing more than 835,000 litres of ammonia. One man was killed and hundreds of people reported injuries ranging from burns to breathing problems.
Clear Channel owns all six commercial stations in Minot – but the police were unable to reach anyone by phone at local radio station KCJB, which was the designated emergency broadcaster.
Lovers of independent and innovative music in Britain should be worried about Clear Channel’s US practices. As the company builds an ever larger stake in the British music scene, the big question is whether it wants to duplicate the massive vertically integrated music operation it has in the US.
A new “payola” (pay for play) inquiry is under way and Clear Channel has been summoned to appear, along with other radio conglomerates. The US media reform group Free Press commented, “When large corporations like Clear Channel and Infinity Viacom swallow up local radio stations, pay for play abuses become rampant, independent artists suffer, and the radio dial becomes a mind numbing wasteland.”
We have been warned.
Granville Williams is on the national council of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom. For more information go to www.cpbf.org.uk