Is Commercial Radio Pro-War?

This is a slightly revised and abridged version of Eric Holland Master’s Thesis submitted to Emerson College in 2004:

Since the Telecommunications Act of 1996, ten companies have come to control two-thirds of both listeners and revenue nationwide. By definition, a consolidated radio industry has fewer owners and therefore fewer voices than an industry with a multitude and a multiplicity of owners. Naturally, the less voices, the more easily debate of controversial issues is structured and the more control owners have over influencing public opinion. Although many of us harbor suspicions that the man controls the message, do examples exist of owners using the public airwaves to advance their own private political agendas? Is there proof to show radio owners are betraying the public trust by corrupting the airwaves with information that is tainted by an ideological agenda?

The answer is yes.

There is currently no law, neither written nor unwritten, that prohibits radio stations from attempting to influence the political opinions of listeners. This state of affairs has only existed for a relatively short time. Prior to 1987, broadcasters were subject to the Fairness Doctrine which was an FCC policy that had been formalized in 1949. At that time, one commissioner called it the “jewel in the tiara of public service. As these words suggest, the Fairness Doctrine grew out of the FCC’s mandate to ensure broadcasters act in the public interest. This phrase “public interest” can be traced back to the Radio Act of 1927 which stated two fundamental concepts:
1. Radio stations must operate in the public interest, convenience, or necessity.
2. Licensees do not own radio; the airwaves belonged to the public.
This concept of PICON: public interest, convenience, and/or necessity is, or certainly has been, at the very foundation of the American system of commercial broadcasting. The Fairness Doctrine which was abolished in 1987 required broadcast licensees to:
1. Provide coverage of vitally important controversial issues of interest in the community served by the licensees and…
2. Provide a reasonable opportunity for the presentation of contrasting viewpoints on such issues.
On the FCC website, one can read the following explanation for the repeal Fairness Doctrine:

In its 1987 decision in Syracuse Peace Council, a prior Commission eliminated the fairness doctrine on the grounds that it was contrary to the public interest and First Amendment. The Commission believed that the growth in the number of broadcast outlets reduced any need for the doctrine; that the doctrine often worked to dissuade broadcasters from presenting any treatment of controversial viewpoints, that it put the government in the dubious position of evaluating program content, and that it created an opportunity for incumbents to abuse it for partisan purposes.

Ignoring the interesting language at the end of this passage, let’s focus on the premise for the FCC’s decision to repeal the Fairness Doctrine: “the growth in the number of broadcast outlets reduced any need” for it. In other words, as the number of radio stations had grown significantly between 1949 and 1987, we no longer need this safeguard for democracy because the fact that so many stations (voices) exist guarantees that all substantial viewpoints will be heard.

Perhaps this made sense in 1987 when the Fairness Doctrine was repealed but it certainly does not after the Telecommunications Act was enacted in 1996. This act replaced the national multiple radio ownership rule and the local radio ownership (“radio contour overlap”) rule. Prior to 1996, a company or individual could own a maximum of twenty AM stations and twenty FM stations nationwide and no more than two AM stations and two FM stations in any one market. Since 1996, there is no limit whatsoever on the amount of stations one company or individual can own nationwide! The limitations on stations owned on a per-market basis were relaxed dramatically. In the largest markets with 45 or more stations, one owner can control up to eight stations provided only five are on the same (AM or FM) band. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 provided for a sliding ownership scale based on the number of stations in each market. In markets with 30-44 stations, one owner can control no more than 7 stations and no more than 4 on the same band. In markets with 15-29 stations, the limit is 6 stations and no more than 4 on the same band. In the smallest markets, one owner can control up to five stations with no more than three on one band provided they do not control more than fifty percent of the stations. An owner is prohibited from owning more than half the stations in any one market.

Lowry Mays, the founder and CEO of Clear Channel, has always been unapologetic about the reality of what his company does. “We’re not in the business of providing news and information, we’re not in the business of providing well-researched music, we’re simply in the business of selling our customers products.” Clear Channel is by far the most dramatic example of consolidation in radio. It owns over 1,200 radio stations in the U.S., takes in over twenty percent of radio ad dollars, and reaches over one-hundred million listeners across all fifty states. Add to this the fact that FCC Chair Michael Powell has stated publicly that he has “no idea what is meant by the public interest”

With an audience of roughly 8.5 million, Howard Stern is by far the most successful talk personality who is not plainly a conservative. He could hardly be considered a liberal however as until very recently, he’s been a supporter of George W. Bush. In the aftermath of the Janet Jackson inspired indecency controversy surrounding the Super Bowl of January of 2004, the FCC put broadcasters on notice that indecency would not be tolerated. In February, Clear Channel cancelled the Stern show on the six stations it owns that carried him. Stern’s dismissal by Clear Channel coincided not only with the FCC’s perceived crackdown on indecency but also with his transformation from Bush backer to Bush attacker. Shortly after the termination, Stern stated on the air, “There’s a real good argument to be made that I stopped backing Bush and that’s when I got kicked off Clear Channel.” Stern is an entertainer whose ratings will benefit from controversy so this statement must be taken with a grain of salt. However, Stern has built up an enormous amount of credibility with his uncompromising candor over his long career, so his words cannot be readily dismissed either. Whatever Clear Channel’s motives, their corporate level decision to pull Stern off six stations in six different markets lends credence to the argument that a characteristic of a consolidated radio industry is owners who can quickly erase even the most popular host when they espouse views contrary to the company line.

While talk radio is overtly political, music radio is not so readily thought of as a political tool. However, music has a long history of being a powerful political force. In the most recent war on Iraq that began in 2003, protest songs were recorded by major artists such as REM, Lenny Kravitz, John Mellencamp, Willie Nelson, and Beastie Boys but they received scant little airplay and none charted. Songs supporting the war have fared much better. Darryl Worley’s “Have You Forgotten” was a chart topper and fellow country artists Aaron Tippin and Clint Black also enjoyed hits that cheered on the troops.

In March of 2003, shortly after George W. Bush sent American troops to Iraq, one of country music’s most popular acts The Dixie Chicks were on tour in London. Dixie Chicks singer and Texas native Natalie Maines made the following comment on stage: “Just so you know, we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.” She added that Bush’s foreign policy is alienating the rest of the world. What happened next is the most blatant example of politically motivated radio programming in the consolidated era. The Dixie Chicks suddenly had their songs dropped from hundreds of play lists around the country. Gail Austin, Clear Channel’s director of programming for two country stations in Jacksonville, Florida said, “Out of respect for our troops, our city and our listeners, [we] have taken the Dixie Chicks off our play lists” Cumulus Media, which owns 275 properties – the second most of any company in the U.S., pulled the Dixie Chicks from all 50 of its country stations after the comments! At one rally promoted by a Cumulus station in Shreveport, LA, a bulldozer crushed Dixie Chicks’ CDs. Cumulus chief executive Lewis Dickey denied the move was part of a political agenda. “We pulled the plug out of deference to our listeners,” he said.

These hearings provided much fodder for the regulation debate. Senator John McCain called the ban “an incredible, incredible act” that illustrates how consolidation is causing the “erosion of the first amendment.” Mr. Dickey characterized the dramatic gesture as “an event that was precipitated by listener demand” but acknowledged that his local station managers “fell in line” with the corporate decision; only two DJs dared to defy the edict and they were disciplined for it.

Don Henley of the Eagles is not one of them. At the January, 2003 congressional hearings on media consolidation, Henley said artists are “shackled by the anti-competitive practices of the conglomerates
Neilsen’s Broadcast Data Systems measured 12, 420 spins of Dixie Chicks songs on monitored country stations in the U.S. during the week of 3/3-3/9/2003. During the week of 3/17/-3/23/2003, BDS measured 3,695 spins of Dixie Chicks songs. In the span of two weeks, American radio stations played their music 8,725 fewer times after the comments become public. The message was crystal clear for all artists in all genres that rely on radio play for their livelihood: If you bad mouth George Bush, we’ll punish you severely. However, this was not the first time radio as an industry has delivered a political message to artists.
The events of 9/11/2001 led to perhaps the first tangible proof that a consolidated radio industry had political ramifications. System of a Down is a popular rock band whose lyrics are often political in nature. The band and their singer, Serj Tankian, received a lot of negative publicity following the attacks.

In 2003, System Of A Down found itself in a similar position. A leaked letter allegedly from an MTV executive, cited “heightened public sensitivity to representations of war, soldiers, bombing, destruction of buildings and public unrest at home” as a reason to stop playing selected videos. The list singles out System of a Down’s “Boom!” because it’s an “antiwar video containing facts and figures about, among other things, the projected casualties in the war in Iraq.”
The System Of A Down scenario is similar to the Dixie Chicks situation in that we see an artist being punished by consolidated radio for being critical of President Bush or in this case his policies. One cannot stress too much the facts that recording artists have traditionally been on the front line of political protest and that radio air play is essential for dissemination of music. When artists are punished for speaking out against politicians, how can it not have a chilling effect on what they say and what they sing? Country and rock are two of only a small handful of commercially viable formats in which artists might possibly record a protest song. Both of these formats have given notice to artists that a price can be exacted for political speech.

An even more illustrative case of the political ramifications of radio consolidation occurred when a list of “songs with questionable content” was distributed among Clear Channel programmers in the wake of 9/11 (See Appendix C). This document became a lightning rod of controversy when it became public. The list contained over 150 songs that programmers should avoid playing as well as the entire body of work by Rage Against the Machine! In the case of Rage Against the Machine, their guitarist Tom Morello, expressed it best in an article he wrote and posted online.

Several of the songs seemed to be included because of their pro-peace message–like Bruce Springsteen’s “War,” John Lennon’s “Imagine” and Cat Stevens’ “Peace Train”–as if being in favor of peace was a political point of view that was suddenly “questionable.” Along with the individual titles, the blacklist included “all songs” by my band, Rage Against the Machine, which suggests that our radical political beliefs rather than specific lyrical content rendered our work taboo.

Rage Against the Machine is not a minor band. They sold millions or records in the nineties and they were unique for the overtly political and decidedly left wing message. To have their entire catalog of songs included on this list distributed to all of Clear Channel program directors is unthinkable and indefensible. Clear Channel controls about sixty percent of rock radio stations, (the only formats that would play Rage Against the Machine) so one cannot overestimate the affect that a blacklisting type of situation would have. Kim Hulse, a spokeswoman for Clear Channel has gone on the record as saying, “There was no corporate-issued list. That’s not the way the company works.” She said that Rage Against The Machine songs were played 800 times on the 1,200 or so Clear Channel stations in the weeks after September 11. Morello is unconvinced, “It’s an overt act of censorship directly tied to media consolidation.” The careful reader will note that Ms. Hulse did not deny the existence of a list, she only denied a list that was issued at the corporate level. As far as the number of spins, national statistics from Broadcast Data System make her claim seem reasonable but a comparison with the amount of spins they were getting before 9/11 revealed a significant decrease in airplay. BDS indicate RATM received 2,372 plays in the week before 9/11/2001 and only 1,713 spins in the week after 9/11; 659 fewer plays. BDS shows a similar phenomenon for System of a Down. The amount of airplay they received dropped from 2,101 to 1,829 in the same period; 272 fewer plays.

After initial denials that the list existed, Jack Evans, a regional senior VP of programming at Clear Channel explained that “after and during what was happening in New York and Washington and outside of Pittsburgh, some of our program directors began e-mailing each other about songs and questionable song titles.” Evans stressed that the list was not initiated by management but he did concede that the final list was distributed by management. Some of the list seemed to be a reasonable response to the tragedy of 9/11 as lyrics using imagery about crashing planes may not be such tasteful selections days after the downing of the World Trade Center. However, as Eliza Truitt pointed out in her Slate column, “Cat Stevens’ Morning Has Broken and Peace Train [were listed], presumably because Stevens is now Muslim and goes by the name Yusaf Islam. The oddest inclusion has to be John Lennon’s explicitly pacifist anthem Imagine, unless Clear Channel is pushing a pro-war agenda.” After the events following the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, this ostensibly flippant remark doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

The impetus that led to such strong language was not blacklisted songs or artists but a series of rallies held in various towns and cities in the U.S. that were held in support of the American troops in Iraq. These rallies were organized, promoted by, and paid for Clear Channel. Over a dozen Clear Channel stations individually sponsored a demonstration referred to as a “Rally for America” including ones in Atlanta, Cleveland, San Antonio, Cincinnati, Sacramento, Charleston, Richmond, San Diego, Fort Wayne, Philadelphia, Houston, and Selma. Clear Channel paid the advertising costs, the costs of speakers and musicians, and sometimes handed out American flags. Many charged the rallies were not just in support of the troops but were, in fact, of support of the war and of President Bush’s decision to wage it

A spokeswoman for Clear Channel said the rallies are the idea of Glenn Beck, a Philadelphia talk show host syndicated by a Clear Channel subsidiary called Premier Radio Networks. In an analysis of the rallies, Chicago Tribune writer Tim Jones commented, “the events have served as a loud rebuttal to the more numerous but generally smaller anti-war rallies.” He also pointed out, “the sponsorship of large rallies by Clear Channel stations is unique among major media companies which have confined their activities in the war debate to reporting and occasionally commenting on the news.” Clear Channel’s Ken Charles says there is no corporate mandate for stations to have Pro-America rallies. “This is something that was totally organized locally…You know our promotion department, our talk show host, we did not, you know, get a call from Washington or anything like that.” Kaliya Hamlin has done extensive research on Clear Channel as part of her work with Integrative Activism. She doesn’t think that rings true. [Glenn Beck] “who had been nationally syndicated for less than three months at that point does not have the capacity to organize that many events [20+] ‘alone,’ (with just his show staff) it had to have institutional support and funding.” Eric Boehlert, who has written a series of articles about Clear Channel, also finds the local angle unlikely as the company is known for its “iron-fisted” centralized control.

As controversy about the rallies grew in March of 2003, Clear Channel spokeswoman Lisa Dollinger contradicted these views. “Any rallies that our stations have been a part of have been of their own initiative and in response to the expressed desires of their listeners and communities.” She did not address the issue of the company having given support to the events by promoting them on their corporate website. She added, “They’re not intended to be pro-military. It’s more of a thank you to the troops. They’re just patriotic rallies.” In the opinion of journalist Joseph Kay, “In fact the rallies promote a definite and reactionary political agenda” and are a “forum for promoting national chauvinism and boosting the Bush administration and its policies.”

Former FCC commissioner Glen Robinson commented, “I can’t say this violates any of a broadcaster’s obligations, but it sounds like borderline manufacturing of the news.”
Criticism also came from overseas. According to a Reuters report, the head of the British Broadcasting Corporation, Greg Dyke pointed to the rallies as an example of the dangers facing the U.K. when it deregulates their media. “If Iraq proved anything, it was that the BBC cannot afford to mix patriotism and journalism. This is happening in the United States and if it continues, will undermine the credibility of the U.S. electronic news media.”

Eric Holland was awarded a Master of Media Arts by Emerson College in 2004.

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