Clear Channel Rules the World

How a small chain of once-struggling radio stations grew into a giant of the media/entertainment complex

Needless to say, it's a corporate portfolio that goes far beyond owning an unprecedented number of radio stations. As the e-mail signature line used by many local Clear Channel employees puts it, "What other markets or what other media can I help you with today?"

 

As Clear Channel grew, so did resentment toward what was deemed by many an evil empire. Pop music aficionados have long decried the homogenization of radio at the hands of the company, which, they say, uses market research to formulate repetitious, lowest-common-denominator playlists around the country. (Clear Channel Radio CEO John Hogan retorted in 2003 that the company had 6,700 playlists--a sentiment Seeman echoes. "All of our research and testing for all of our stations is done locally," he says.)

The complaints of the company's competitors and critics were exhaustively documented in a series of stories written by Eric Boehlert of Salon.com in 2001. Boehlert wrote of Clear Channel's alleged "pay for play" practices, recounted accusations that bands who booked shows with other concert promoters saw their airplay diminish on CC stations across the country, and compiled other charges of generally bad behavior. "Welcome to the world of Clear Channel," Boehlert wrote, "radio's big bully."

Like any conglomerate, Clear Channel has sought to make its size pay off by reducing management ranks on the road to consolidation. As it snatched up multiple stations in one market, the company would merge operations, resulting in many lost jobs. According to a report published by Cornell University a year ago that was commissioned by the AFL-CIO, "Clear Channel's cost-cutting practices" led to 1,500 to 4,500 jobs lost over four years.

This type of streamlining happened in the Twin Cities more than two years ago, when operations for all seven Clear Channel stations were uprooted. Stations that had been scattered throughout the metro were suddenly operating under one roof, in a giant office complex in St. Louis Park just off Highway 100 and I-394. Since then, a number of career radio employees have lost their jobs.

Seeman says that only 10 to 15 jobs have been lost locally in the transition. But according to some sources with knowledge of the downsizing, longtime employees were first assured the move would lead to no layoffs. Soon afterward, they claim, about 20 people were let go. Definitive numbers remain elusive, but additional layoffs appear to have happened since the move to St. Louis Park--perhaps totaling as many as 30 out of 250 radio jobs. "It was heartbreaking, and the local managers tried to save the jobs," says one former employee. "But Dan is a good person in a company guided by the whip of Wall Street."

In fact, Seeman is quick to point out that he grew up here and has worked in local radio for 20 years. By most accounts, Clear Channel behaves better here than it does in other markets. Still, as Clay Steinman, a media studies professor at Macalester College notes, "Even if the radio stations in town are staffed by local people, they still don't necessarily have the priorities of local ownership. At the end of the day, there's going to be an emphasis on what's good for the company, and it's all done in the name of the bottom line."

In some markets the company became notorious for allegedly bullying bands and managers into playing shows it sponsored. Critics charged that if an act came to town and had the audacity to book the show with another concert promoter, there was a good chance that advertising for that show wouldn't run on a Clear Channel station. Or if it did, they also claimed, it would be at a higher rate than that for a Clear Channel show. Additionally, the company was accused of dropping artists from its playlists nationwide if they didn't use CCE as their concert promoter.

Band managers and artists are reluctant to talk about to what extent Clear Channel engages in this practice, but one booker told Denver's alternative weekly, Westword, in 2001, "Catch a cold in Denver, get the flu everywhere else." A lawsuit filed in Denver by a local promoter, Nobody In Particular Presents, detailed claims involving the band Eve 6. The band's management company purportedly told NIPP that Eve 6 would have to let Clear Channel promote their Denver show; otherwise the band would lose airplay. Clear Channel argued that the accusation was inadmissible hearsay, but the judge admitted it, ruling that NIPP had provided sufficient evidence that such practices may have occurred.

The company has always denied threatening artists with airplay cutbacks, and few musicians are even willing to talk about Clear Channel on the record. What's incontestable is that, since its purchase of SFX, Clear Channel has had a huge impact on the local club scene. The presence of Clear Channel Entertainment has meant that some clubs can no longer compete for touring acts. James Martin of E Company, who books the Cabooze and Lee's Liquor Lounge, sees Clear Channel's practices philosophically. "It's a lesser risk to them to book these artists," he says, referring to the company's deep pockets. "The band may blow up overnight, and they can book them in other towns, and [establish] them as Clear Channel artists.

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