Friday, June 13, 2014

Clear Channel and the Decline of Radio

Clear Channel. A name you are probably familiar with, at least in passing. What if I told you, however, that this corporation was responsible for shaping radio into what it is today? When you tune into AM or FM, chances are you will hear either the voice of some crotchety conservative talking head or one of those migraine inducing songs played over mall speakers ad infinitum. While it can be easy to assume that it has always been like this, the truth of the matter is that radio as we know it today was molded by corporations, like the aforementioned Clear Channel, who dominated the industry for decades. In this essay, I will lay out why I believe Clear Channel had a deleterious effect on the radio industry as a whole, not only because it contributed to the rise of conservative talk radio, but because its management techniques and vertically integrated nature led to corrupt business practices like payola and poor treatment of workers, which lowered the overall standard and quality of radio across the United States.


Before getting into what is truly problematic about Clear Channel, it is important to understand what led to their domination of the radio industry. In particular, we need to discuss the trend towards deregulation in America, which assisted not only in the rise of Clear Channel, but in the growth of one of its principal money makers: conservative talk radio. One of the misconceptions I had while growing up was that far-right talk shows were a fact of life; nothing could change it, it just was. It did not help that I was raised in a rather conservative town, where everything Limbaugh and Beck said sounded completely mainstream. Now, however, I know that I was completely off-base, and that conservatism’s domination of the airwaves was neither inevitable nor based on historical precedence. So, how did conservatism come to rule talk radio? The simplest answer is that America’s regulatory system allows corporations to take advantage of the system and rig it in their favor. This allows conglomerates like Clear Channel to determine what you listen to, based not on consumer demand but on what generates the most ad revenue. Clear Channel itself rose mainly as a result of the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine and the passing of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, and, while the former had an impact, it was really the latter that most benefited companies seeking to buy up huge swaths of the radio industry. Indeed, the 1996 act allowed corporations to buy several more station licenses within major cities, and retain these licenses for 8 years instead of 3, which essentially gave them the ability to disregard the public’s opinion, thus nullifying the effect of anything like the Fairness Doctrine. Of course, all of the blame cannot be placed on one act. Thus, in the first part of this essay, I will provide a succinct outline of how Clear Channel came to be so powerful, why this allowed conservatism to dominate radio, and why that is such a detrimental thing for society.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the impetus to deregulate during the Reagan years had a huge effect in kick-starting the rise of Clear Channel and conservative radio. Even the FCC, which was supposed to safeguard the airwaves, was headed by a guy (Mark S. Fowler) who thought that his job was to regulate in a way that was "good for corporate America."[1] For Fowler, it did not matter whether or not there was access to public broadcasting, as long as he gave investors greater flexibility.[2] Indeed, the Reagan years did much to create the cultural changes that made conservative talk radio feasible. Additionally, without this foundation, Clear Channel would not have experienced the success that it did, as it was the FCC’s turn towards supporting the welfare of corporations that gave them the confidence to fearlessly bully competitors, artists, and workers using techniques described as “arm-twisting.”[3] As America took a turn to the right in the 80s, those who felt oppressed under previous progressive Presidents wanted to make their voices heard. This left the door open to radio hosts who could appeal to what Susan J. Douglas called the "crisis for masculinity,” or, in other words, the desire for white middle class men to reassert their dominance in an era of growing concerns about the plight of "women, minorities, gays, lesbians, and the poor."[4] In this way, the rise of controversial bombastic hosts like Rush Limbaugh was a result of the testosterone infused politics of Reagan's presidency.[5] If I can interject my own experience here, the manner in which conservative America glommed onto radio as the one refuge where they could hear their views be echoed reminds me of Fox News today, where Roger Ailes' media empire serves as the only beacon of the right among the, to quote one politician, "lamestream media.” Perhaps unsurprisingly then, Clear Channel would later partner with Fox News and its parent company, the News Corporation.[6] Of course, the rise of conservative radio cannot be blamed solely on the Reagan administration or on the cults of personalities of the hosts themselves (as much they probably wish this was true). The real answer is more complicated, and must address the way corporations like Clear Channel used their power and influence to disseminate conservative talk radio across America.

What is it that allowed corporations like Clear Channel to become such powerful forces? In many ways, that question would take a much longer article than this one to answer. To put it simply however, it can probably be best attributed to the trend of government progressively favoring corporations over the consumer. As conservative radio developed, the industry itself began to transform. Whereas it had initially been in the control of a handful of networks like NBC, radio became more about "de-networking" and catering to local markets as television rose to prominence.[7] It then made an about-face in the 80s and 90s, due to aforementioned cultural and political factors. In the name of profits, corporations merged, gaining in market share and ad revenue, until entities like Clear Channel had acquired 145 stations, whose programming was reserved for conservative talk radio 86% of the time.[8] Clearly (no pun intended), these radio groups preferred to air conservative talk shows for a variety of reasons, the most influential of which was money. Indeed, research reveals that when radio stations are controlled by singular owners as opposed to a group, it is more likely they will air progressive content (there is some joke to be made here about conservative shows relying on a system based on centralization of power).[9] Nor does it help that Clear Channel, the largest radio conglomerate, was headed by Lowry Mays, a man who had been appointed to then Governor Bush’s “state technology council” between 2000 and 2002, perhaps explaining why 75 percent of his corporation’s campaign contributions went towards republican candidates.[10] In other words, corporations necessarily reflect the values of their CEOs and executives, which has problematic implications when said corporation controls such a huge portion of an industry like radio, where one of the main services provided is opinionated talk shows.

With the cultural groundwork laid by the Reagan years, and the legislative foundation built by the corporate friendly FCC under Mark S. Fowler, the Republican congress of the 1990s went to work further deregulating the airwaves. After the passing of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which essentially allowed “radio groups to own as many stations as they wanted,” Clear Channel “more than doubled its holdings,” and embarked on an advertising agenda that aimed to “sell ads nationally and regionally, as well as locally;” what they called “synergy.”[11] In other words, because Clear Channel broadcasts the same content consistently on a national level, advertisements get more exposure than they would if every local region had its own station with their own unique advertising agendas. The same infrastructure used by Clear Channel to distribute its ads also worked to provide exposure to conservative causes, such as Glenn Beck’s Rally for America events, which were promoted heavily by Clear Channel’s Premiere Radio Networks division as a way to drown out the concerns of those against going to war with Afghanistan after 9/11.[12] Obviously this is problematic, as areas that are not necessarily conservative leaning are subjected to content and advertisements that conform to that point of view. Case in point, San Francisco’s talk radio content is seventy percent conservative, which is staggering when considering the liberal politics of that city.[13] As someone familiar with Glenn Beck, his ability to use radio to spread his message definitely assisted his efforts to whip up grassroots conservative activism, as seen with the marches on Washington he did a couple years back. While that might not necessarily be a bad thing, it is a bit concerning that a minority perspective has access to such a large stage by which to advertise its views, when most Americans do not really identify with the far right agenda. To sum up, Clear Channel’s rise flooded the airwaves with bland politically biased content, something that greatly hurt the medium’s popularity amongst more liberal populations, and robbed towns and cities of their more localized, community-based stations.

Of course, Clear Channel’s ascendance facilitated more than just the rise of conservative radio; indeed, it led to the proliferation of several questionable business practices that tainted the industry as a whole. One such practice was payola; a term used to describe the act of record companies paying off radio DJs to play a particular song. This was a huge issue in the 1960s, and was thought to have been mostly stamped out by the time Clear Channel became a player in the industry. In reality, Clear Channel’s “sheer size…particularly after 1999, meant that it was extremely difficult to keep tabs on what was happening at particular local stations.” [14] In other words, Clear Channel had grown to the extent that they were no longer capable of micromanaging individual stations. This allowed payola to reappear in a fashion that was, initially, far more difficult to detect, as it no longer dealt in the direct exchange of money between record company and DJ. This form of “legal” payola, as it was described, was based around a system where, every time a “station added a record that got a credit in the ‘bank,’…they could then redeem those credits for concert tickets, promotion items, T-shirts, fireworks show,” etc.[15] So, in return for playing certain types of music, station managers were rewarded with tangible items that they could either give away to listeners in a contest or use themselves. The ironic thing is that this kind of blatant bribery was rather unnecessary, as it had a “marginal impact on Clear Channel’s profits.”[16] Still, they continued the practice because technically speaking it was not illegal, and because they lived by the ideal that if somebody wanted to pay them money, they would “take it.”[17] This thirst for profit over everything else played a huge role in ruining the quality of radio in the United States, and, in a strange twist of fate, only hurt Clear Channel’s viability as a company in the end. Indeed, consolidation “had made [Clear Channel] the engineers of their own demise, forced to squeeze the quality out of their content in order to meet quarterly numbers, while listeners slowly migrated elsewhere.”[18] Payola played a role in this, as in exchange for annual six-figure payments, Clear Channel leveraged away its quality content. Things became so bad that at one point, marketing companies were hired to place phony calls to stations in order to make song requests on behalf of certain labels.[19] Had this been a practice at a single local radio station, it would not have been a huge deal. However, because Clear Channel owned stations across the United States, these types of corrupt practices came to define the radio industry as a whole. Not only were they syndicating conservative talking heads, but they chose songs and other content based on who could offer them the best bribe, essentially destroying the legitimacy of radio.

Though a significant black mark, payola was far from the only thing wrong with Clear Channel’s monopolistic control of radio, as seen by how they crushed those who ran stations focused on local concerns and preferences. Robert Short Jr., for example, attempted to establish a radio station to appeal to Syracuse’s black community, but was hampered by a process that was “dragged out [by the big companies] to weed out the small players.”[20] Short eventually got the station he was hoping for in the form of WRDS, though this was not before he went into severe debt paying off legal fees accrued battling corporations like Clear Channel. Once in control of his own station, Short created a business model that was based upon servicing the local community, and as such he often hosted events that brought people together. Additionally, he visited several schools in the area to talk about his life to children, and used money gained through WRDS to fund underprivileged little league teams.[21] This all changed with the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which, as mentioned above, weakened the restrictions over how many stations one company could own in a particular region. This allowed Clear Channel to buy up stations in Syracuse in bulk, and, through the use of “voice-tracking technology and syndicated programs,” operate them all with little cost.[22] For the record, voice-tracking is basically the practice of simulating the appearance of a live radio broadcast, when in reality the DJ recorded their lines hours or days earlier, and merely used a program to insert these snippets in between a pre-determined list of songs played by a computer. Essentially, despite the fact that Short’s WRDS catered to the community and its particular needs far more effectively than Clear Channel, the conglomerate’s vertical integration and consolidated approach allowed it to operate at dirt cheap costs while simultaneously being able to offer companies irresistible advertising packages.[23] The moral of the story? Though they offered terrible and hackneyed content, Clear Channel was able to take control of radio, in the process destroying community based stations like WRDS. Apply this to the country as a whole, and you can see just how problematic these developments are.

Many of the issues that plagued Clear Channel came as a result of, not poor management, per se, but management that was focused on every part but the radio part of the radio business. Indeed, Clear Channel’s owner, Lowry Mays, once told Fortune Magazine: “we’re not in the business of providing news and information. We’re not in the business of providing well-researched music. We’re simply in the business of selling our customers’ products.”[24] With this philosophy in mind, it is easy to see why Clear Channel was so willing to broadcast sub-par content, which perhaps explains the rise of conservative talk radio. Indeed, combining the quote from Mr. Mays above with the knowledge that Clear Channel’s executives “had been backing President Bush [the younger] since he entered Texas politics,” it becomes evident that money and politics colored the direction of radio programming put out by this corporation, not quality.[25] Clear Channel’s acquisition of Premiere Radio Networks, a syndicator of Rush Limbaugh, Dr. Laura, and Glenn Beck, therefore made sense both financially and politically.[26] They would be able to play syndicated broadcasts in the hundreds of local markets they owned instead of having to finance live local community based shows like that of Robert Short Jr., significantly reducing operating costs while allowing for more ad time. Simultaneously, the political views of those like Mays and his fellow executives would be sated by the constant 24/7 drone of far right propaganda spouted by talking heads like Ingraham, Limbaugh and Beck. The end result? Radio in the United States had transformed into a wasteland of “automated programs…endless commercials, and a uniform diet of politically partisan, parochial talk shows that dulled local radio.”[27] The desires of Clear Channel’s management colored their decisions and had a damaging effect on the industry. Though their practices eventually caused listeners to tune out, Clear Channel made enough of a negative impact that much of radio as we know it is structured upon the choices they made a decade ago.

Clear Channel’s deleterious decision making process affected radio not only on a macro level, in regard to the ways it tried to make money through advertising and partisan syndicated broadcasts, but on the micro level, especially in relation to workers in the radio industry. Indeed, the company “typically seeks overall labor cost reductions by consolidating operations and eliminating positions, introducing labor saving technologies, concessionary bargaining with unions, and even pursuing union desertification.”[28] Or in other words, perhaps unsurprisingly based upon what I have written above, Clear Channel could not care less about the average worker languishing under their malevolent control. This would not have been a huge issue, were it not for the fact that Clear Channel owned such a large percentage of radio stations within the United States. As a result, their business model “exerts significant pressure on competitors, who have [been forced to implement] job cuts or salary reductions” in order to compete with them.[29] As has been a recurring theme, Clear Channel was able to essentially break all of the conventional rules of business due to their immense size and a managing strategy that placed the dollar above everything else. This not only ruined the quality of their content, but negatively affected their workforce. Indeed, many unions went after Clear Channel, accusing them of violating the National Labor Relations Act, with “fifty-five Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) charges…filed against [them] and its subsidiaries between January 1999 and October 2002.”[30] Due to the manner in which they often threw their employees under the bus, Clear Channel was described by some union leaders as “the Walmart of the radio industry.”[31] Personally, I think that that comparison gives Clear Channel too much credit. At least with Walmart they cannot fire their workforce and replace them with robotic automatons (at least not yet), a la Clear Channel and their use of voice tracking and syndication. The equivalent would be if Walmart could hire one team of workers, and have that team somehow work in every store across the country simultaneously, with that team being replaced by half-wit artificial intelligences whenever they had to go on breaks/holidays. While I may be getting a bit over-imaginative, this does demonstrate how fragile jobs can be in the radio industry, where big corporations can easily replace you with a DJ willing to do the same work at a cheaper price, or with a syndicated host like Rush Limbaugh, who can be copied and pasted to any number of stations and is known to attract a steady stream of advertising income

As a final note, I would like to make a comment about a particularly disturbing effect of Clear Channel’s near-monopolistic control of the radio industry: the fact that their business practices have put people’s lives at risk. Radio stations are obligated, as part of their responsibilities as licensed distributors of our public airwaves, to serve as an emergency alert system in times of crisis. Clear Channel, thanks to “cost cutting practices” that led to “lack of staffing,” has impeded the response to a number of recent disasters, one of which included “a train derailment and hazardous spill,” which people were unaware of due to nobody manning local stations.[32] One particularly disturbing case of this neglect towards civic responsibilities took place in Richmond Virginia, where a hurricane disrupted all forms of electronic communication besides radio. Clear Channel, due to understaffed stations and a lack of any local reporting crews on hand, was unable to inform people of crucial developments related to the hurricane, including a warning about bacteria contaminating the water supply.[33] Instead of devoting airtime to coverage of the storm, Clear Channel maintained its broadcast of Rush Limbaugh, relegating only a handful of seconds to sub-par local news reports, and, when people protested trying to get them to change their emergency response practices afterwards, they refused.[34] So, not only did Clear Channel hurt radio through its poor management techniques, corrupt practices, terrible content, and Gilded Age-esque treatment of its workers, but it was so focused on meeting profit margins and consolidating its business that it failed to fulfill its duty to sufficiently serve the public in times of disaster. Why end with this point? Well, in my estimation it serves as a perfect capstone to my deconstruction of Clear Channel and its demolition of the radio industry. If they did not care about people during times of disaster, why would they care about concerns over their destruction of local radio in favor of syndicated conservative broadcasts and voice-tracked DJs? As is always the case, money first, people second.

Today, Clear Channel is no longer the force that it was a decade ago, having splintered itself into several offshoots due to a loss in profits, unsurprisingly caused by the damage they themselves did to radio. Still, the company’s legacy lives on, and perhaps disturbingly, the trend towards deregulation that assisted in its rise persists, even under the left leaning Obama administration. Clear Channel left a permanent mark on the radio industry, through its dissemination of conservative talk radio, its use of corrupt practices like payola, and its disdain for workers, decent content, and the general public. As a result, radio lost much of the unique character it had in earlier decades, and localism on the airwaves became virtually extinct. Still, I would not say that radio is completely dead. Clear Channel did its best to hammer several nails into its coffin, but with them somewhat out of the picture, there is still a chance that we will see a return to an age of radio based more on the needs of the public and not the greed of investment bankers. If we are unsuccessful, I fear that radio's influence will diminish severely in the coming decades, until eventually it passes into history, forever remembered as a victim of corporations like Clear Channel Communications.




Endnotes

[1] Susan J. Douglas, Listening In, (New York: Time Books, 1999), 295.
[2] Ibid
[3] Maria C. Figueroa, Damone Richardson, and Pam Whitefield, The Clear Picture on Clear Channel Communications, Inc,: A Corporate Profile, (Ithaca: Cornell University Digital Commons, 2004), 5.
[4]Douglas, Listening In, 290.
[5]Douglas, Listening In, 291.
[6] Eric Klinenberg, Fighting for Air: The Battle to Control America’s Media, (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2007), 79.
[7]Douglas, Listening In, 297.
[8] The Structural Imbalance of Political Talk Radio, (Center for American Progress, 2007), 4.
[9] The Structural Imbalance of Political Talk Radio, 29.
[10] Figueroa, Richardson, Whitefield, The Clear Picture, 8.
[11] Alec Foege, Right of the Dial: The Rise of Clear Channel and the Fall of Commercial Radio, (New York: Faber and Faber, inc, 2008), 6.
[12] Foege, Right of the Dial, 165.
[13] The Structural Imbalance of Political Talk Radio, 5.
[14] Alec Foege, Right of the Dial, 222.
[15] Alec Foege, Right of the Dial, 223.
[16] Alec Foege, Right of the Dial, 224.
[17] Ibid
[18] Ibid
[19] Alec Foege, Right of the Dial, 227.
[20] Eric Klinenberg, Fighting for Air, 58.
[21] Eric Klinenberg, Fighting for Air, 59.
[22] Eric Klinenberg, Fighting for Air, 60.
[23] Alec Foege, Right of the Dial, 225.
[24] Eric Klinenberg, Fighting for Air, 63.
[25] Eric Klinenberg, Fighting for Air, 76.
[26] Eric Klinenberg, Fighting for Air, 62.
[27] Eric Klinenberg, Fighting for Air, 63.
[28] Figueroa, Richardson, Whitefield, The Clear Picture, 5.
[29] Figueroa, Richardson, Whitefield, The Clear Picture, 6.
[30] Figueroa, Richardson, Whitefield, The Clear Picture, 7.
[31] Ibid
[32] Figueroa, Richardson, Whitefield, The Clear Picture, 5.
[33] Eric Klinenberg, Fighting for Air, 69.
[34] Eric Klinenberg, Fighting for Air, 70.




5 comments:

  1. Hi Nick
    Great piece!
    I wonder if you can share your numbers that illustrate the consolidation of US radio - something like XX top conglomerates collect 80% of the revenue.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi Nick, great piece!
    I wonder if you could share you numbers that illustrate the stronghold radio conglomerates have on USA radio industry. Something like "top groups collect 80% of annual revenue".
    Thanks
    Nadav Levy

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you! According to page 8 of this study (http://cdn.americanprogress.org/wp-content/uploads/issues/2007/06/pdf/talk_radio.pdf), Clear Channel alone used to own 1,200 radio stations out of the total ~10,000 in the United States. So, one company had control of 10% of the market. Additionally, there are four other conglomerates nearly as large as Clear Channel. Doing the simple math there, it becomes clear just how much corporations control radio in America.

      The prevalence of conservative talk radio is evidence of this control, as when stations are owned by a single person and not a group, progressive content is far more likely to be aired (which is also demonstrated by that report linked above).

      Delete
    2. ... and ... thanks once more :-)

      Delete
  3. You forgot the telecommunication act of 1996...The Bill took off the cap limit on how many radio stations a corporation could own in a local district..The bill was signed Bill Clinton... Its not just a conservative problem; as you can see a democrat signed a bill that ruined the radio stations across America and promoted mass control of the media.

    Conservatives and Liberals are both in bed with the corporations and they both want control.

    ReplyDelete