Prime Time Payola
Is Clear Channel buying political
favors with pro-war fanaticism?
by Stephen Marshall
In These Times, April 4,
A feverish, corporate-sponsored nationalism
has taken root in America at a time when the public depends on
a vibrant communications culture to sustain its institutional
democracy. Nowhere is this more clear than in the case of Clear
Channel Communications, the nation's largest radio chain.
In the outrage that followed the Floridian
scandal and George Bush Jr.'s appointment by the Supreme Court
to the Oval Office, many in the media missed an equally alarming
familial maneuver. In one of his first bureaucratic decisions
as president, Bush named Michael Powell, son of Secretary of
State Colin Powell, as chairman of the Federal Communications
Commission. That the son of one of the nation's most decorated
and politically entrenched former military officers should be
given control of the agency that regulates the domestic news
and entertainment networks--indeed the whole telecommunications
industry--is something that is more imaginable in ... well, Iraq.
Powell took over as chief regulator for
a corporate communications industry in the throes of a radical
transformation following the Telecommunications Act of 1996,
which opened the door for deregulation and sparked widespread
condemnation from media activists who saw the act as an attack
on the public interest function of the FCC. The existing television
and radio networks launched into mergers of unprecedented size,
while new players with deep pockets were able to claim previously
unthinkable levels of market share.
One of the act's most prominent benefactors
was Clear Channel Communications, a relatively unknown broadcaster
based in San Antonio, Texas. Led by L. Lowry Mays, a rancher
and one-time George W. Bush business associate, Clear Channel
has ridden a wave of acquisitions, spending more than $30 billion
to become the world's largest radio broadcaster, concert promoter
and billboard advertising firm. Clear Channel owns more than
1,200 radio stations (approximately 50 percent of the U.S. total),
five times more than its closest competitors, CBS and ABC. Considering
the fact that prior to the Telecommunications Act, a single broadcaster
could not own more than 40 stations in the entire country, it
is hard to see the behemoth as anything but a creation of the
But while Clear Channel's unhindered expansion
is the result of the deregulation media barons crave, its growth
has not been viewed favorably by the rest of the industry. With
the FCC scheduled to review the last remaining set of protections
on media diversity this spring, Big Media is worried that the
upstart Texans will ruin it for everybody.
And they have reason to be concerned.
In January, Sen. John McCain's Commerce Committee held two hearings
that targeted, among other things, the issue of media concentration.
At the first hearing, Michael Powell and his four commissioners
were subjected to intense questioning about their strategy to
protect the public interest from "sky's the limit"
deregulation. In a response that clearly surprised the committee,
Powell, traditionally an unabashed proponent of the free market
and loosened restrictions to ownership, said he was "concerned
about the concentration, particularly in radio." Mediageek.com's
Paul Riismandel explained: "Indeed, [Powell] didn't want
much publicity or input ... But now the cat is out of the bag
and yowling like crazy."
Smelling the blood of a close Bush ally,
partisan Democrats on the committee, led by maverick Republican
McCain, called new hearings to specifically examine "consolidation
in the radio industry." As the committee's star witness,
McCain summoned Clear Channel's Lowry Mays.
Mays was systematically skewered by the
hostile committee and those invited to testify on behalf of the
public (and private) interest. Rep. Howard Berman (D-California)
catalogued charges to the Justice Department and the FCC against
Clear Channel. These include anti-trust violations, payola and
a form of tactical extortion in which monopolies over local concert
bookings are used to pressure record companies into buying radio
spots, called "negative synergy." But, as we learned
during the Enron hearings, lawmakers are less concerned with
corporate criminality than they are with sustaining the corporate
capitalism that perpetuates it. The committee's ranking Democrat,
Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings (D-South Carolina), emphasizing
more savory bureaucratic concerns, lamented, "Radio consolidation
has contributed to a 34 percent decline in the number of owners,
a 90 percent rise in the cost of advertising rates, [and] a rise
in indecent broadcasts. If ever there were a cautionary tale,
this is it."
While most of the congressional debate
over media concentration focuses on the diminished health of
the marketplace, Clear Channel has revived traditional progressive
fears that media concentration will negatively impact the breadth
of dialogue permitted in the public sphere. Indeed, since 9/11
and the advent of Bush's "war on terror," Clear Channel
has been the most sycophantic and pro-militarist Big Media corporation,
which is saying a lot.
Just days after the 9/11 attacks, slates
of blacklisted songs, including Cat Stevens' "Peace Train"
and John Lennon's "Imagine," were leaked to the public.
But it was not until the invasion of Iraq that Clear Channel
really kicked into high gear. Facing the massive public outcry
and protests against the war, the network began sponsoring pro-war
rallies called "Rally for America." Using its 1,200
stations, Clear Channel pummeled listeners with a mind-numbing
stream of uncritical "patriotism." Finally, there was
the recent and gleeful banning of Dixie Chicks songs from several
prominent Clear Channel stations after singer Natalie Maines
made derogatory remarks about George W. Bush.
Perhaps Clear Channel is simply exercising
its right to free expression and supporting the foreign policy
initiatives of the current administration. This is hardly the
first time that a major media network used its power to marginalize
political beliefs that contradict those of its owners. However,
one cannot deny the potential for a conflict of interest. Clear
Channel is currently facing a major congressional investigation
of its business practices. The FCC has blocked two of its most
recent requests for station transfers, something that the commission
has not done since 1969. Clear Channel's share price is down
nearly 50 percent from the value it held before the 9/11 terrorist
attacks. All this is coming at a time when the FCC is about to
rule on the existing barriers to consolidation, a decision that
could dramatically affect Clear Channel's ability to further
collateralize its massive debt by expanding its holdings.
Has the fact that the FCC chairman is
the son of the nation's most politically enfranchised former
military official had any impact on the fanatically pro-war stance
that Clear Channel has taken with its recent actions? Or is the
Clear Channel executive leadership, closely connected to the
president, simply providing him with the kind of support one
expects from political allies?
Whatever the answer, with Michael Powell,
George W. Bush and Clear Channel, the lines between political,
military and corporate media power have become blurred into one
Stephen Marshall is a Sundance-award
winning documentary filmmaker and creative director of Guerilla
News Network. http://www.gnn.tv
Media's Threat to Democracy