When people talk about corporations controlling what we think, they're talking about Clear Channel. By now, you may even be used to their ubiquity, having seen their name at the bottom of most Portland billboards, or heard their tag on their local radio stations, like 1190 KEX, K103, 105.9, 620 AM, and Z100.
But when you start connecting the dots, it's obvious Clear Channel is in the business of media consolidation, and that their stronghold on mainstream information can be described, without any semblance of paranoia, as Orwellian. A foray into their labyrinthine website details exactly how far their lengthy arms unfurl. Of only six conglomerates that disseminate mass media to the American public, Clear Channel is the nation's largest, possessing over 1200 radio stations--20 percent--and reaching 110 million listeners weekly.
It doesn't stop there. They operate what can only be described as a bottomless pit of television stations, music venues, promotion companies, Broadway productions, and motor sports events. Don't forget their SFX sports group, which serves as an agent for such players as Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant; their hand in museum programming (such as the recent, touring exhibit of Titanic relics); and their ownership of advertising spots on the tops of taxi cabs in most major American cities.
It wasn't always this way. Before Congress and President Clinton passed the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)-introduced Telecommunications Act in 1996, there were caps on the amount of radio stations a company could own. These caps were placed 62 years earlier with the knowledge that media monopolies result in diminished information and, by extension, diminished democracy.
Now, in an upcoming June 2 vote, under the helm of FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell (Colin's son), the FCC is expected to push forth further deregulation. The rewriting of the rules would allow conglomerates like Clear Channel to further their massive media ownership by making it legal for them to own a newspaper and a broadcast station in the same region, as well as lifting caps on the number of radio and television stations one owner can control in a single market.
As Sen. Ron Wyden commented to a Senate panel earlier this year, "There is a real possibility that the FCC is going to shift policies so that one company can own the whole game in town."
NOBODY ASKED US
Clear Channel's conservative agenda is one thing. The company, whose vice-chairman is buddy-buddy with George W. Bush, owns the rights to radio talk shows such as Rush Limbaugh, Michael Reagan, and Laura Schlessinger. Clear Channel is also notorious for devising and promoting their own "pro-war" rallies during the Iraq invasion. And if the June 2 vote ends in a tie, the potential "swing vote" will be decided by FCC commissioner Kevin Martin--who is married to the press secretary for Vice President Dick Cheney.
But one of the clearest problems with this move towards deregulation is that nobody asked us. Virtually no public debate was held, other than a few scattered panels around the country. When public debate on the topic did occur, it was mostly ghettoized due to the lack of coverage said panels received. After all, given the money and power media conglomerates are poised to gain from deregulation, why would they inform the constituency opposing it? Knowledge is power--and the mass media isn't offering either.
Even the FCC's Michael Powell is involved in the topic's suppression. In fact, when FCC Commissioners Michael J. Copps and Jonathan S. Adelstein requested to Chairman Powell that a public hearing be held to offer details on the topic, he refused outright.
In a public response to Powell's denial released May 15, Copps noted, "The Chairman's decision not to make these proposals public, nor even to grant a short delay in voting, runs roughshod over the requests of the American people and the precedents of this Commission." On May 20, in a report to the Media Institute, Adelstein commented, "We're on the eve of the most sweeping and potentially destructive overhaul of the FCC's media rules in the history of American broadcasting. But I'm not sure we really know what we're about to unleash."
Copps and Adelstein aren't alone in their opposition to the FCC's abrupt and strangely secretive decision. Last month, a group of musicians ranging from Thurston Moore and Ian MacKaye, to Neil Diamond and Jackson Browne, sent a letter to the FCC stating, "A refusal to allow Congress and the public to view and debate your specific proposal would be a tremendous disservice to the American public and the citizens who depend on these media structures for their livelihoods."
In the same letter, the musicians cited a November 2002 study conducted by the Future of Music Coalition--a Washington, DC-based musician's rights group--concluding that "radio consolidation has resulted in reduced marketplace competition; reduced programming diversity and the homogenization of playlists; reduced public access to the airwaves for local programming; and reduced public satisfaction with listening options."
The issue of deregulation is uniting opponents from both ends of the political spectrum, and conservatives are making their voices known. Last week, members of the National Rifle Association (NRA) mailed over 105,000 postcards to Congress opposing deregulation. NRA President Wayne LaPierre commented, "big media conglomerates are already pushing out diversity of political opinion."
They're joined in their opposition by the Parents' Television Council, the Center for Digital Democracy, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The latter organization has already "lost access to airtime for public service announcements and even Sunday Mass on a station that previously carried it for 27 years" thanks to the Telecom Act, according to a May 20 report by the National Journal's Congress Daily.
IT'S A CLEAR CHANNEL WORLD
Despite the diverse chorus of protest, on May 15, when members of the FCC requested that Powell delay the vote so they could further study its potential ramifications, he again refused, responding, "There is precedent for granting such a request, but it is not customary to do so over the strong objections of a majority of Commissioners who are prepared to proceed, or where Congress has statutorily set the pace of our deliberations, as is the case here."
With so many people imploring Powell to move gingerly and with more forethought, how can he constantly give people the shaft? Part of the answer: that's just Powell's M.O., which alternates from cold and dismissive to condescending when addressing the topic of public input in his deregulation proposal.
In his speech to the Media Institute, Commissioner Adelstein noted, "I'm afraid that the FCC isn't only about to further McDonaldize the media--it's about to Supersize it. Once we place our order on June 2nd, we'll all have to digest what comes our way I, for one, hope that we take it slowly and avoid indigestion."
Meanwhile, fresh off a merger with Univision, Clear Channel waits, licking its chops.