Crimes against Humanity: Clear Channel

During a recent exchange with the good Historian over Twitter, I learned that the flagship alternative rock station of Boston MA, WFNX, has been sold to the media conglomerate Clear Channel. While much of WFNX’s ‘identity’ (its catalogue, call letters, etc.) will remain the property of the local media company Boston Phoenix, it is a sad day when one of the better radio stations in the country goes the way of the evil empire.

Why is Clear Channel Evil? First, let’s be clear about what Clear Channel is: it is a media corporation that not only includes billboards (sight pollution) and hundreds of radio stations across the country (noise pollution), but it has also dabbled in television, live events and news. Its modus operandi is to buy a station, strip it down to bare bones, and deliver one of its common formats like Kiss or Magic or some other anodyne and boring fare.

Clear Channel, described by some as the ‘Enron’ of Media monopolies, just shouldn’t exist. Let’s start with that crime.  When the FCC was established to govern radio waves (and eventually television, broadband, etc.) the intention was to distribute licenses so that no one group had a monopoly over access to the air waves. This is about the freedom of the press, the freedom of expression, and in the internet age, the freedom of assembly. Should any one group or man (or even a few groups) corner the market, then minority groups, especially the poor and politically disenfranchised, would lose access to not just free expression but a right to choose news and entertainment outlets.

The heady deregulation of the 1990s (moved for by the lobbyists who work for these firms), that very political maelstrom that provided the condition for the housing and credit crises, allowed companies like Clear Channel to explode onto the national (and international) stage—dominating some local markets, but expanding cleverly so that their influence was diffuse enough to skirt the now lax FCC laws.

If Clear Channel does not have a clear monopoly over expression in some localities, it has a de facto one because it has claimed and silenced the most interesting outlets. But, given that this conglomerate is working within the boundaries of the law (if not the spirit), there is additional (albeit not illegal) grounds for outrage.

Corporations like Clear Channel—as the scandal with Murdoch’s media group in the UK and the political activities of Fox here in the US show—have only one true interest, and that is the bottom line, profit for owners and shareholders. That’s it. Any other claims are mere window dressing.

In order to garner maximum profit from scalability, radio outlets across the nation carry the same morning shows, the same pre-approved playlists, and the same general formats. Now, this has eased the syndication of some popular shows (Tavis Smiley, Howard Stern before satellite, Rush Limbaugh) at the price of local voices (which may or may not be more interesting). The effect is the same as national television and internet outlets: the boundaries of our national cultures are blurring.

Nowhere is this more evident than on the bland and even blander radio dial where an adult contemporary or hip-hop station in New England will play roughly the same music as that in the Southwest. To devil’s advocates, I admit, there is some advantage in a shared national culture. But, we must be wary of the cost. Local voices are heard less on the radio. New, interesting, and local acts don’t have a chance to be heard by those who actually live around them.

Such corporate scaling has had a ‘knock-on’ effect (as the British would call it). Where we don’t find Clear Channel we find stations like Magic and Kiss and their hip-hop and country counterparts, we find slimmer imitators like  Jack FM  and Bob FM  that have no real DJs most of the day and play the same slate of ‘the best’ and ‘most popular’ songs. Sure, the stations may be safe, but how and where do you hear something new or different.

Thus, Clear Channel is part not only of the homogenizing of our radio culture and the silencing of local music, but it is also an influence on the ‘dumbing’ down of American music—executives do not like to take risks with their playlists. Only hits get played—leading to a bit of a conundrum: if only hits get played, where do they come from?

(Perhaps we can blame media complicity on the inexplicable financial success of American Idol artists. Perhaps Kelly Clarkson is talented, but if we had other options, would we listen to her songs and buy her albums.)

How do the executives make decisions? My brother thinks that we probably have a thousand quiet Payola  situations (especially when it comes to the ubiquity of a mediocre band like Foo Fighters). While I think this is probably likely, I suspect that there is far less conspiracy and more general ass-covering and job-protection. If Kelly Clarkson sells one album and people keep the stations on, why not play it safe and play her next single until we all give in and settle for it?

Why don’t we hear Mates of State, the Pixies, They Might Be Giants, or Jose Gonzalez on the radio? Because they are unknown quantities who don’t fill stadia. This is musical programming through regression to the mean—the equivalent of the agribusinesses who threaten biodiversity and poison our environment and food chain with pesticides and antibiotics all for the sake of a higher profit margin. We get cheaper food (and radio); we are complicit too.

Clear Channel is not just guilty of crimes against good taste, of aesthetic crimes that homogenize us and threaten to rob our communities and ourselves of our identities, by monopolizing the airwaves and limiting local engagement and access to public assembly in the broadest sense, conglomerates like Clear Channel both prevent the citizenry from becoming fully and well informed and from participating in politics to our fullest capacity. In simple terms, Clear Channel and the system that allows it to function undermines our collective democracy and threatens our constitutional rights.

What can we do? First, avoid Clear Channel outlets. Listen to independent and college stations; the company has already gone bankrupt once. Elect state and federal representatives who don’t blindly deregulate as if bowing to some righteous idol. Vote with the radio dial. Give money and time to public broadcasting. Start your own station online. Support the listeners of WFNX and sign this petition.

Not that any of this will really change the world. But it may at least make your life better.

Sooner or later, Clear Channel may come for us all (or at least our radiostations)

11 comments on “Crimes against Humanity: Clear Channel

  1. […] one of two places where you could find yourself subject to the whim of faceless disc-jockeys or the machinations of entertainment executives. (Some of us even drove cars that didn’t even have tape […]

  2. […] dial is dominated by bad hip-hop stations, country, Christian stations, Spanish-language radio and JACK FM.  The radio landscape is so barren that I cannot even choose six stations available for my pre-set […]

  3. […] thing I read about recently that linked to this terrible event is something the Clear Channel chose to do in the aftermath of the attack. They banned certain songs that were deemed volatile in […]

  4. […] tastes like your own (and the other friends might actually broaden your horizons); you can change radio stations or listen selectively to MTV (not that this is an issue any more since MTV no longer plays music). […]

  5. […] channel black music often enjoy more success than their counterparts. (And, I suspect that former American Idol contestants are correct that racism is operative in that competition as well, the difference is […]

  6. […] one of two places where you could find yourself subject to the whim of faceless disc-jockeys or the machinations of entertainment executives. (Some of us even drove cars that didn’t even have tape […]

  7. […] capitalist culture. Bu,t having such a preference, of course, implies a blindness to the fact that money already runs the music industry. How else can I explain the fact of the Foo Fighters all over the […]

  8. […] an increasingly homogeneous and confused radio world. (If not for Public Radio and College Radio, Clear Channel might have ruined everything […]

  9. […] LTD Stationwagon, I relished the pure joy of a few months of low-advertising and risk-taking on the local alternative rock station. One of the few things I remember about this period is the overwhelming airplay […]

  10. […] heard this song on a 90′s show on MVV2 which actually still plays music videos sometimes.  This song always made think of the weekend and although the chemicals rushing in his […]

  11. […] backwoods and suburbs in a Ford LTD station wagon, I remember this as one of the high years of the local alt-rock station. The song “Lump” played almost every hour (and it is a great driving song). Matt Sharp, of […]

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