Crimes against Humanity: Clear Channel

During an exchange with the good Historian over Twitter a few years back, 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.) remained 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. (Okay, that’s a losing mission. They’re all millionaires. They don’t listen to the radio.) Vote with the radio dial. Give money and time to public broadcasting. Start your own station online.

Not that any of this will really change the world. But it may at least make your life better. And we need to fight now for variety, freedom and control over our airwaves. We are not so far off from the collapse of even the pretense of net neutrality. Can you imagine if Clear Channel’s bland aesthetic became the dominant paradigm of the internet too. (Oh, shit…)

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

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