Nothing can make you spew your latté across Starbucks like a quote from an executive of Clear Channel Communications, which is warmly known as the Evil Empire around the radio biz.
Clear Channel's director of FM programming in San Diego, Jim Richards, created just that kind of special moment a few weeks ago, when a reporter from the Union-Tribune asked him about the way his company has been gassing live disc jockeys in favor of really cool tape machines.
“The role of the DJ has changed, but so what?” Richards said. “I don't see what the fuss is about.”
With the typical Clear Channel station displaying all the personality of a 2 a.m. TV infomercial for lint rollers, Richard's “eat me” tone would seem a wee bit undiplomatic. But he went a step further, pointing out disc jockeys can't be trusted to program music, just as a cook at McDonald's can't put ketchup on burgers.
“Why is radio different from any other industry?” Richards asked.
This led reader David Tanny, who apparently isn't drinking the Clear Channel Kool-Aid, to note in a letter to the editor, “Just when I thought those Clear Channel reps have said the stupidest things ever to the press, they keep talking.”
Who knows, maybe Richards just found it annoying that a U-T reporter was asking the same ol' dumb ass questions, a hallmark of the U-T's twice-annual forays into the radio biz. But Tanny has a point.
See, Richards knows radio is different in one key way-it is regulated by the government, which has the power to bitch-slap Clear Channel whenever it damn well wants. Yet, even with government vultures circling, lawsuits working in the courts and listeners aghast at the increasing blandness of radio, Clear Channel continues to move with the subtlety of a mob boss walking the docks with a baseball bat.
After a buying frenzy, Clear Channel now owns more than 1,200 radio stations. It also owns live concert companies, billboard companies, TV stations and radio syndication companies, making the San Antonio company the new Mack Daddy of multimedia companies.
In San Diego it controls 14 radio stations, thanks to FCC loopholes that allow it to manage stations it doesn't own, Clear Channel's way of flipping the bird at FCC regulations limiting the number of stations one company can own in a market.
It's just this type of weasel-y loophole mongering that is getting Clear Channel in big trouble. The agreements are clearly legal, but no one has exploited the technique as aggressively as Clear Channel.
“We just happen to be really good at maximizing flexibility under the rules that are in place,” a Clear Channel spokeswoman recently told a reporter.
Maybe she's right, but rubbing the government's face in the poop is, traditionally, a really, really bad idea. No bitch can turn as mean and spiteful as quickly as Congress.
Clear Channel can defend its plan for world domination as good clean fun, but its tactics have been so heavy-handed and arrogant, they make even the record companies queasy.
After years of dry humping any DJ with a boombox, the record companies are calling for a federal investigation of payola, based in part on Clear Channel's reported attempt to force the record companies to use only Clear Channel-approved promoters to pitch songs to Clear Channel stations, raising red flags like a caffeine-crazed ferryman from Beijing.
Heck, anybody who listens to radio and wonders why so many lame-ass songs get played can connect the dots. Ya' wanna advertise your band? Ya' gotta talk to Clear Channel. Ya' want your band to play in town? Ya' gotta talk to Clear Channel.
Even the dazed hacks in Washington are starting to wake up. Examined closely, Clear Channel's “integration” and “convergence” strategy can sound a lot like “unfair competition” and “anti-trust.” Already, several members of Congress are laying their scent on a Clear Channel investigation.
This is the type of talk that can make executives of public companies wet their undies. And it's apparently starting to have an effect on the Mays family, which controls Clear Channel.
This summer, Clear Channel, with the stock wallowing, unceremoniously dumped CEO and company icon Randy Michaels, who often displayed the diplomatic skills of Saddam Hussein. His replacement is John Hogan, who seems to be working real hard to live down the company's Evil Empire rep.
“I think the biggest change people can expect is, we will have a more collaborative, more cooperative attitude with our competitors inside the radio industry, and we will be more open with the record industry and recording artists,” Hogan told a reporter last month.
Hogan was asked about Michaels' quaint habit of charging the company to fly in his private jet.
“I'll be flying commercial,” he said.
In realm of Clear Channel, these are fairly rational comments, suggesting that a giant light bulb just exploded over the company. The stakes are huge: Clear Channel has something like $9 billion in debt, which is a heckuva lot to be carrying on the credit card. Clear Channel's shareholders are not going to be thrilled if the government dweebs start dismantling the gargantuan company they just spent all that money to create.
Maybe Clear Channel thought it was fun to walk around swinging the big kielbasa, but now they're getting a taste of payback. And everyone loves to bring down a bully.