Free The Radio!!

July 28, 2002

by John K. Bates

Clear Channel Communications, the largest owner of radio stations in America and the enemy of everything that used to be good about radio in America, is in the news a lot these days. In Colorado, they are being sued (successfully, so far) by a small concert promoter, Nobody In Particular Presents, for allegedly creating a monopoly by linking radio airplay to their concert promotions businesses. Meanwhile, news surfaced this week that Clear Channel’s stocks plummeted on news that Randy Michaels, head of the company’s horridly bland radio division, had suddenly resigned. No explanation was given for this sudden resignation, but shareholders tanked the stock on speculation that, as has happened with companies such as Enron and WorldCom, the sudden demise of a prominent officer portends a sudden disclosure of extremely bad news. No word is forthcoming on a long-term replacement.

The demise of Clear Channel might just be a good thing. From the time the aforementioned Mr. Michaels turned Jacor Communications (subsequently purchased by Clear Channel) into a bland, loud, one-size-fits-every-market media behemoth with little creativity and absolutely no soul, radio has suffered. It is particularly bad in this writer’s hometown of Denver, and in my travels I have concluded that there is no city that has a worse selection of music than the Mile High City. Some may argue why this is, but I would say the primary reason is that Clear Channel monopolizes the market. There are very few music formats in Denver that enjoy any serious competition. Worse, the type of in-your-face broadcasting and concomitant blather pioneered by Mr. Michaels (constant station IDs, contests that run nationwide, disk jockeys who live in Los Angeles but who claim to run a “local” program, etc.) has become the standard at the few stations in Denver that form Clear Channel’s competition. So even if one is listening to a Tribune Co. or a Jefferson Pilot station, he or she might as well be listening to Clear Channel. Listening to radio in Denver is like being trapped in an elevator with nothing to listen to but “Michael Bolton Sings the Best of Elvis.” It is the aural equivalent of Cheese Whiz. Worse, it’s like being in a grocery store where only Cheese Whiz is offered. It may or may not be food, and it may or may not be radio. But the radio consumers in Denver have absolutely no choice.

Sadly missing from the reports of Clear Channel’s stock demise (from accounts in both The Wall Street Journal and USA Today) is any mention or hint that perhaps Clear Channel has reached too far. (Also missing is any acknowledgment that the Republican Party – who passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996 which led to companies like Clear Channel gaining monopolies – is at least partly to blame for the current state of radio). The market, in a general state of pullback, is finally responding to Clear Channel’s bland monopolistic practices. The Journal in particular missed an opportunity to focus on why Mr. Michaels may have jumped ship, Clear Channel’s regulatory problems, and the pathetic state of radio today.

Which is sad, because much bad is happening in an industry that truly affects many peoples’ lives. DMX cable and satellite music services have been around for years, but they finally seem to be gaining wider acceptance, as anyone going to a restaurant or a bar can attest. This writer rarely turns off DMX when at home, except for the odd rasslin show or NASCAR race. There is nothing more enjoyable than music presented without commercials, or inane banter, or those endlessly annoying station promotions spots/commercials during so-called “commercial free” sets of music. To true music fans, DMX is a godsend.

But DMX has always had a limitation: It needed a cable converter or a satellite dish, and hence a building or other fixed location. When a DMX fan was in a car or walking along, he or she had to either listen to CDs or cassettes or deal with Clear Channel. No more. Sirius and XM are companies offering satellite-based music, news, and information services. Like DMX, these are commercial and junk-free. But unlike DMX, they are portable. Both are catching on, and both allow users to bypass Clear Channel and its ilk while at home or in the car or office. Now from sunup to sunset, and far beyond, music aficionados can listen to what they choose, not to what some radio goons in San Antonio declare they ought to be listening to.

This is a significant accomplishment. More importantly, it is a tremendous threat to radio and to Clear Channel’s monopoly. After all, what has kept radio (and radio advertising revenue) going all these years is that there has been no practical alternative to radio while in the car, the office, or walking along the street. Portables are nice, but they eventually get boring and are completely useless for any sort of news or traffic updates. There have always been enough listeners with little choice. Now that these people have a choice, it will be interesting to see if radio can survive.

Maybe – just maybe – the morons running Clear Channel and its few competitors will see the light and open up radio to the freedom and creativity that used to thrive there. Radio used to be a joy to listen to. It was local and varied, with as many different personalities as were commercially viable. One could listen to a blabbermouth, or one could listen to “album rock” stations where the DJs rarely talked. What Clear Channel and its friends have done is to sanitize radio and eliminate any sense of creativity or fun. Radio is now a business run for the profit of business. And while profit is not a bad thing, the relentless pursuit of profit can ultimately undermine a product and cut future profits. Here’s hoping that Clear Channel sees the light and frees radio from the bland hell to which it has been sentenced. Only then can they hope that their profits will increase and their stock rebound – and that their core business will survive.



John K. Bates is a part-time freelance writer who works in the energy engineering field and lives in the Denver, Colorado area. He enjoys many outdoor pursuits and the company of his family of three cats. His columns can also be seen on

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