BOB GARFIELD: We're back with On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Employees of media giant Clear Channel received an unusual letter in their inboxes recently. The company that owns 12 hundred radio stations across the country sent a membership application to all its workers to join its political action committee. The letter comes complete with suggested donation amounts, from one percent of the salary of those earning a 6 figure pay check to one quarter of a percent of the salary of the lowly producers making less than 50,000 dollars a year. TV Guide columnist Max Robins has been reporting on this story, and he joins us now. Max, welcome back to the show.
MAX ROBINS: Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Would you lay out the scope of the broadcast behemoth known as Clear Channel? What kind of a shadow does it cast?
MAX ROBINS: Quite a large shadow, quite frankly. They own 10 percent of the radio stations in the country. They are one of the 3 radio giants. They're also quite big in television.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And they own a lot of entertainment venues too.
MAX ROBINS:They also own the largest concert promotion company in the business, so this really is a company with its tentacles throughout the entertainment business.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In fact it's been accused of having a monopolistic strategy.
MAX ROBINS:Absolutely. This is a company that certain members of Congress are taking a look at on different fronts, and has really benefitted by years of de-regulation in Washington.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And yet its bottom line seems to be dropping out.
MAX ROBINS:Well, the company has fallen somewhat out of favor with Wall Street -- they're carrying an enormous amount of debt. However they do have an incredible amount of power, and they like to wield it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay, so give me the highlights of this memo.
MAX ROBINS:What's interesting about this memo -- not so much that Clear Channel would have a PAC; that's pretty much standard operating procedure in the media industry. What is unusual, and especially for companies that are in the news business which Clear Channel clearly is, is that they would go to all their employees and say we want to take money out of your paycheck! Normally companies that do have PACs only solicit contributions from really the most senior executives. This seems kind of onerous. I mean on the application it says: "This is my voluntary contribution. I understand no one will be favored or disadvantaged by reason of contribution amount or decision not to contribute. I may refuse to contribute without reprisal from the company."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] How are employees taking that?
MAX ROBINS:They don't like it one bit, and they, they have a feeling this is - sense of you better go along! They know who contributes and who doesn't. And the other thing too -- in fact I heard this from a rather senior executive there who was offended by this and said --really I mean they're putting their hands into pockets of people who really can't afford it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And are they really afraid of being put at a disadvantage if they turn them down?
MAX ROBINS:Certainly they are. And, and the other thing too is -- this has happened before with media companies. If you roll back the clock about 15 or 16 years ago when General Electric acquired NBC, a memo went around that they wanted -- but this was just at the management level -- to contribute to the GE PAC, and news executives got a hold of this and said hey, no way! And I think that that's part of the concern, Brooke. That if you are in the business of gathering news, you shouldn't be out there contributing to a PAC!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what is it that Clear Channel's political action committee plans to be lobbying for on Capitol Hill?
MAX ROBINS:There are beginning to be some rumblings on Capitol Hill that there has been too much media concentration in a small handful of players, and so they're going to be working I'm sure quite aggressively on that front, and I think they're wary with the congressional elections coming up that if the Democrats take over the House, there are some people who may become quite powerful who aren't exactly favorable to this finite group of companies having so much power.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:So that helps the Clear Channel executives, but what does it do for the Clear Channel rank and file that are being asked to contribute?
MAX ROBINS: Clear Channel executives would argue, of course, that if their aims are met in Washington, everybody benefits. They grow; they make more money; and their employees make more money. However this is not exactly a company that has a reputation in the media business for being employee- or worker-friendly, if you will. I mean [LAUGHS] they're often referred to by people who work there as Cheap Channel.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Max Robins, thank you very much.
MAX ROBINS: Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Max Robins writes the Robins Report for TV Guide.