BOB GARFIELD: We've reported more than once on this program about the radio giant Clear Channel. We've carped about the company's monopolistic practices, kvetched about how they're homogenizing the radio industry and complained that they are anti-free speech. One story that captured the attention of the nation's media and Congress was the debacle in Minot, North Dakota when the town couldn't receive news of a deadly chemical spill in large part because most of their local radio stations were controlled by Clear Channel and all automated. Katy Bachman is a senior editor at Media Week magazine. She says that all this bad press contributes to the image of Clear Channel as an evil media empire, an image she says is unjustified. Clear Channel has recently hired a Washington lobbyist and created a communications department to deal with its image problem. Katy joins me now to discuss these issues. Katy, welcome to the show.
KATY BACHMAN: Thank you for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Now two of the big criticisms against Clear Channel on the free speech front surrounded two controversies -- first, the Dixie Chicks complaints about President Bush in the lead up to the war in Iraq which reputedly resulted in a Clear Channel ban of the Dixie Chicks from their air waves, and the troop support rallies that several Clear Channel stations were involved with in various local markets. In both cases, you say the charges are simply untrue.
KATY BACHMAN: They are untrue. Clear Channel did not ban the Dixie Chicks. Some of their stations decided to not play their music for a while. Others continued to play the music, including many of course top 40 and contemporary hit radio stations. The pro-troop rallies were the sort of brain child of Glen Beck [sp?] who is a syndicated radio host. Some Clear Channel stations participated in those rallies, but so did some other stations owned by other groups; and some Clear Channel stations didn't participate in those rallies. So to paint Clear Channel with this broad brush that they've dictated what their stations should do and how they should act and what kinds of events they hold is simply not true. It's just turned into urban myth.
BOB GARFIELD:Well of course the other big criticism of Clear Channel is that news and information gets very short shrift, and at some of its operations there aren't even live human beings to react to major catastrophic newsworthy events where they are broadcasting.
KATY BACHMAN: It's not exactly the way everybody has painted it or described it. One of the things that they've taken a lot of hits for is voice tracking where you have one personality providing the voiceovers and the discussions in between music for more than one station, and a lot of the accusations have been that this person sits somewhere on a hill somewhere and is providing the personality for a half a dozen stations hundreds of miles away, when the fact of the matter is those are very regional and local-based, and they tend to be for music stations. The problem in Minot, when they had the chemical spill, I don't think you'd have Clear Channel saying oh, no that wasn't a problem; that wasn't our fault. I have heard lots of different stories. I'm really not sure precisely what happened. I have heard that there was a problem with the town's emergency system -- that they didn't turn a switch; that Clear Channel was on one system, they were on another. I really don't know who's to blame here, but I do know that Clear Channel is in the business of serving their communities and making money and I'm sure they see that as something that they needed to look into.
BOB GARFIELD:Now if you were to listen to the complaints of the recording industry, you imagine that Clear Channel's headquarters are something like Dr. No's hollowed out volcano where sinister forces are at work to restrict the play lists on 1200 stations from border to border, coast to coast, and to destroy the American way. You've been to the Clear Channel headquarters in San Antonio, Texas. Not quite so sinister?
KATY BACHMAN: You know, I tried to find Darth Vader. There's about 14 people in the corporate radio division in San Antonio, and only two fellows that are the programming execs, and those two fellows are busy looking at stations that need marketing help or stations that they're going to flip formats at. There's no master playlist. It just simply doesn't exist. It is a rather ridiculous notion.
BOB GARFIELD:But Clear Channel is one of the top three radio holding companies, and they have control over many concert venues. Now whether or not they're Dr. No, the fact is that Clear Channel does have a considerable grip on the industry and the fortunes of recording artists.
KATY BACHMAN: Arguing about music and whether or not new artists get exposure, I don't know that you can blame the radio business. You have to look at the recording industry as well, which is even more consolidated than the radio business. From what I understand, record labels, they're going to promote an artist that they think is more mainstream and has more mass appeal. And then, of course, a company like Clear Channel or Infinity is going to put it on the air.
BOB GARFIELD:So what's your take on the intense negative reaction to Clear Channel, up to an including Senator John McCain, a chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, who suggested that Clear Channel should divest itself of some of its holdings. How has it won this reputation for evil?
KATY BACHMAN: I find that very funny about Senator McCain. Didn't he vote for the Telecommunications Act of '96? [LAUGHTER] But in any case, Clear Channel's the biggest. Nobody has ever owned this many radio stations. Even Clear Channel doesn't know how in the world is the best way to run these stations and how best to make a really good business out of it. Clear Channel has not been the best communicator in the world. They, they are trying to do something about it, but you need to look at the whole radio industry, not just Clear Channel. It's not the same radio business you and grew up with.
BOB GARFIELD: This is not your father's WKRP. [LAUGHTER] Katy, thank you very much.
KATY BACHMAN: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Katy Bachman is a senior editor at Media Week magazine.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, the Bush administration's image problems in the U.S., Iraq and India.