Prime Time Payola

Is Clear Channel buying political favors with pro-war fanaticism?

by Stephen Marshall

In These Times, April 4, 2003


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 act itself.

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."'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 authoritarian impulse.


Stephen Marshall is a Sundance-award winning documentary filmmaker and creative director of Guerilla News Network.

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