“Right of the Dial: The Rise of Clear Channel and the Fall of Commercial Radio” by Alec Foege Faber and Faber, 320 pages ($25)
The name “Clear Channel” became shorthand for everything wrong with terrestrial (non-satellite) radio: Lack of diversity, repetitious music, boring programming, too many commercials, censorship, jingoism, ad nauseam.
In a previous life, I was very familiar with radio, first as a record promotion man and later as a marketing executive at a trade publication for radio managers. Initially, I encountered a variety of stations, mostly independently owned or part of small chains. Few companies held more than a handful of stations, due mainly to the limitations imposed by federal law. But that all changed with the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which lifted most limits for corporate acquisition of broadcast properties and allowed ownership of multiple stations in a single market. In the industry, the resulting change was called “consolidation.”
Writer Alec Foege’s interest in the subject of radio in general and Clear Channel in particular was piqued when he became aware of the uniformity of radio stations’ programming during a longish family car trip. He wanted to know why the music was so bland and over-familiar.
He begins with a brief history of Top 40 radio, the company that later became Clear Channel, and its founder, Texan Lowry Mays. He knew nothing about the broadcasting business, according to Foege, but was a shrewd and opportunistic businessman who viewed radio as a unique industry with unparalleled potential for growth.
As the story continues, Mays builds his business and is poised to take advantage of the sweeping pro-business trend toward deregulation. Acquiring numerous stations, he seeks efficiencies by eliminating various redundancies. Among them were physical facilities, so Foege writes about how, in markets where the company owned several stations, all are based in a single building, sharing a common management team as well as administrative and engineering staff.
But the downside became apparent as the cost cutting continued. Indeed, the company’s nickname of “Cheap Channel” was earned by their elimination of incumbent talent and the promotion of lower-paid employees. At the same time, through automation and other tools, live local announcers were replaced by pre-recorded programming or “voice tracking,” with the on-air content for a multitude of stations originating in a remote studio from a single announcer. The same voice and personality hosts a show in Orlando, Fla., for example, yet she’s really sitting in a studio in San Antonio or Omaha, Neb.
And the local news component of most Clear Channel stations had also been reduced or eliminated, with several striking examples of the absence of reporting during local disasters cited in the book.
Foege also writes about other issues, such as the company’s corporate culture, with the controversial practices and behavior of managers, including Randy Michaels, who came into the fold as a result of Clear Channel’s purchase of the Jacor chain (owned by Sam Zell, who bought the Tribune Co. last year).
This book covers a lot of ground, including the company’s politics, which are more expedient than ideological, according to Foege. But ultimately, media consolidation has been a disappointment, as evidenced by AOL Time Warner and other failed mega-mergers. Clear Channel is already starting to dissemble, though as a result of this exercise, the vitality of radio as a local medium will likely never return. Right of the Dial explains how this precious cultural and economic institution was exploited and destroyed.
(Richard Pachter is the business book columnist for the Miami Herald. He can be reached at rap AT WordsOnWords.com; more columns are available at www.WordsOnWords.com.)