Mon, 4 August 2014
While a slew of recent corporate mergers and acquisitions this year have sparked renewed concerns over media monopolies, the radio and concert conglomerate Clear Channel has long been considered the poster child for what’s wrong with media deregulation. The corporation is the number one radio station owner in the United States, with the 840 stations under its umbrella amounting to about 245 million listeners per month.
Now I know what you’re thinking – who listens to the radio anymore? A fair question, it would appear, on the surface, particularly given the rapid rise of web-based services such as iTunes and Spotify. But consider a recent Neilsen report that found that even with these technological advances radio is still the dominant way people discover music, with the notable exception, if fairness, of the teenage audience. Still not convinced that radio tastemakers remain important in the current media climate, or skeptical that the medium isn’t, as broadcaster Terry O’Reilly put it, the ‘ultimate survivor’? Well, consider the Clear Channel-run initiative called ‘On The Verge’, a strategy designed to quite literally manufacture the popularity of a new artist, making it practically impossible for a chosen song not to catch on.
This strategy, perhaps already obvious to anyone reading this, was first outlined in detail by Emily Yahr of the Washington Post last month. Her piece revealed that when an artist’s song is designated as being ‘On The Verge’, all of Clear Channel’s radio stations (again, all 840 of them) are required to play the track at least 150 times. Why 150 times? Because that’s approximately the number of plays it takes for a wide enough group of listeners to form an opinion about a song, according to Clear Channel’s president for national programming platforms, Tom Poleman. It’s all very cold, calculated, and completely scientific, which reminds me of a conversation I had with journalist Ryan Ripley earlier this year about the prevalence of news sites to base their decisions on coverage almost wholly on analytics (see SLHS Episode 134).
We’ve been told that in the Internet age, it’s never been easier for a new singer to break into the music industry, and of course there are certainly examples out there of aspiring musicians that have found fame through uploading their work to the Web, and gaining fans without record label involvement. However, an all-too obvious paradox has been created courtesy of technological innovation and the trend towards digital consumption. The fact that it is apparently so easy now to be heard, actually makes it rather difficult to be heard. In other words, the proliferation of affordable digital recording hardware and software means that while almost anyone today can make a song, the Web has been flooded with so much content that the odds of standing out from the crowd are slim-to-none. All of this makes the ‘On The Verge’ program all the more significant.
So how exactly does the program work? It begins with the brand managers at the top of the Clear Channel food chain that pick the songs they deem to be potential hits. These selections are sent to program directors across the country, who then vote on which ones they think their listeners will respond to best. Despite the claims of Tom Poleman that this is all in service of developing new artists, the end result is that the same song gets played over and over and over and over again in New York, California, Texas, and all points in between until it has passed the threshold of being annoying into being ‘catchy’. There is little variety, almost zero consideration for local artists (meaning no distinguishable difference between radio stations), and in the age of the empowered consumer, no room for the listener to do much else but passively be told by a select few executives what is and isn’t good music.
Now of course, as listeners we can choose to change the station, or turn off the radio altogether, but with such a massive spotlight guaranteed to be shone on a chosen song, these commercial records can become almost inescapable. In effect, Clear Channel is engaged in a perfectly legal yet highly insidious form of ‘structural payola’, destroying any sense of artistic merit and creating an atmosphere whereby artists and labels must ‘play the game’ in order to even be considered for airplay.
As a case study, let’s look at the career trajectory thus far of the Australian rapper Iggy Azalea, who herself, as documented by Emily Yahr, has benefited tremendously from ‘On The Verge’. After her first three official singles flopped, the single ‘Fancy’ was released on February 17th, debuting at Number 88 on Billboard’s Hot 100 charts on March 22nd. Two weeks later, it was named an ‘On The Verge’ song for six weeks, with its pervasive airplay guaranteed until May 15th. Unsurprisingly, by the end of May, ‘Fancy’ had reached the top of the Billboard 100, where it stayed at number one for seven weeks.
If you ever wondered why mainstream radio is so redundant, why we hear the same song repeatedly, or to go one step further, why so many of the acts sound so similar, look no further than the influence of Clear Channel.
It wasn’t always this way. Radio companies used to be severely restricted from owning too many stations, with regulations permitting companies to own only two in any one market, and no more than 28 nationwide. Government policy used to enforce the idea that because radio was broadcast on the public airwaves, it had an accompanying public trust. Local stations were designed originally not to be conduits for the next mass-produced, carefully-packaged, mind-numbingly repetitive commercial single. Rather, they were supposed to be assets to local communities. The rules were meant to keep ownership as diverse as possible, keeping the stations’ focus on the community in which it existed in.
The death blow to the now antiquated notions of diversity, localism, and competitiveness was dealt in 1996, when President Clinton signed into law the Telecommunications Act, enabling the handful of corporations already dominating the airwaves to expand their power further.
Clear Channel benefited greatly post-1996, leapfrogging from ownership of 43 stations to more than 1200 by the turn of the century (although as previously noted, this number has since dropped to 840). Intriguingly, they hired the congressional aide who drafted the Telecommunications Act, and at one time were represented by the former law firm of the head of the Justice Department's antitrust division. A 2003 Village Voice article noted that Clear Channel's vice chair, Tom Hicks, made George W. Bush a multimillionaire by buying the Texas Rangers baseball team from him, and chaired a state university board that steered most of its endowment to firms with Bush and GOP ties.
But the political influence of Clear Channel doesn’t stop there. You may recall that back in 2003, its affiliate stations throughout the United States organized pro-war rallies, under the name of Rally for America, to coincide with the Bush administration's launch of war with Iraq. In the aftermath of 9/11, the corporation banned the airplay of any political song, including the entirety of Rage Against the Machine’s catalog, and curiously, the song ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon. Infamously, its stations stopped playing the Dixie Chicks after the group's lead singer, Natalie Maines, told fans during a London concert, "we're ashamed the president is from Texas."
While Clear Channel representatives have stated that the boycott of the Dixie Chicks, America’s most successful all-female group, was solely the work of local station managers, its detractors argue that Clear Channel executives instigated the ban to send a message to other musicians criticizing the Bush administration. This message certainly was echoed throughout the right-wing airwaves at the time, with talking heads such as Bill O’Reilly even advocating that the band be ‘slapped around’ for speaking their mind on the Iraq conflict.
In more recent times, America’s evil empire of radio has come under fire for a variety of nefarious activities, including widespread lay-offs of hundreds of local DJ’s, and a practice called "voice-tracking," which involves piping in popular out-of-town personalities from bigger markets to smaller ones, creating the illusion that the DJs are themselves local residents. In 2006, it petitioned the FCC to relax further the rules limiting station ownership, arguing that the emergence of the iPod, online music services, and satellite radio had placed them at a competitive disadvantage. The following year, when the FCC ordered Clear Channel require its stations to devote 4,200 hours to independent and local artists, it responded by forcing artists to sign away their digital performance rights should the conglomerate decide to use the song over the internet.
But as previously stated, Clear Channel’s sphere of influence goes much further than radio. A 2012 Huffington Post article revealed that Bain Capital, the creation of one Mitt Romney, is one of its primary owners. One has to wonder to what extent the media landscape would be further controlled and manipulated under his Administration.
On a basic level, Clear Channel’s McDonald’s approach to radio programming makes a mockery of artistry and reduces decisions on who and what to play to a depressingly mechanical process. As the media theorist Douglas Rushkoff notes, there is no such thing as true cultural and artistic expression once it has been commercialized to the extent we've seen with Clear Channel.
Yahr, E. (2014). Clear Channel's 'On the Verge' program helped make Iggy Azalea a star. Washington Post (Blog).
Neilsen Holdings N.V. (2012). Music Discovery Still Dominated by Radio.
Lichtenstein, B. (2012). Romney, Clear Channel and the Future of America. The Huffington Post.
Barrett, W. (2003). Bush's Voice of America. The Village Voice.
Federal Communications Commission (1996). Telecommunications Act of 1996.
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