Sunday, April 13, 2008

Review-Right of the Dial: The Rise of Clear Channel and the Fall of Commercial Radio

New York Times
April 13, 2008
Radio Days
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The Rise of Clear Channel and the Fall of Commercial Radio.

By Alec Foege.

294 pp. Faber & Faber. $25.

To those listeners who long for the days when their favorite radio station was independent, eclectic in its programming and as responsive as a tripwire to breaking local news, Clear Channel is nothing less than the Evil Empire. In Internet chat rooms where the media giant’s acquisitions and cost slashing have been tallied as if on a scoreboard — it grew from 43 stations to more than 1,200 from 1995 to 2001 alone — its name is regularly followed by the same expletive typically directed at the Yankees during a game at Fenway Park.

But when Alec Foege, a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Spin and Playboy, set out to write the definitive history of a company that possesses more radio stations than any other, he decided to give it the benefit of the doubt.

“I was not out to do a hatchet job,” he writes in the preface to “Right of the Dial,” “but rather to get to the bottom of a company that I suspected had gotten a raw deal as its bad publicity had snowballed.”

The reader need wait only three paragraphs before Foege renders his final verdict: “Having spent a lot of time talking to some of the company’s most prominent critics, as well as some of its most devout supporters, I have concluded that Clear Channel is indeed to blame for much of what it has been accused of.”

While unable to refute the conventional rap against Clear Channel — he finds it responsible for a “McDonald’s approach to radio programming” that makes one city’s offerings largely indistinguishable from another’s — Foege nonetheless succeeds in telling the story of how all this came to pass. The reader is guided from the company’s dusty beginnings in Texas in 1972 to its subsequent acquisition of the company that employed Rush Limbaugh (it still syndicates him on about 600 stations), and from its binge buying, as federal media ownership rules were relaxed in the late 1990s, to the high-tech battering it began receiving from the iPod in the new century.

Even before television and movies surpassed it in the nation’s cultural pecking order, radio was a medium that attracted a disproportionate share of colorful, often shady characters. Foege brings many of them to life, not least the pioneering radio programmer who hitchhiked for days at a time to divine what drivers were listening to (he later helped program XM, the satellite radio channel) or another who presided over a programming meeting where strippers were paraded through (his company was later bought by Clear Channel, and he was installed as a top executive).

Foege is an unabashed radio wonk, but he is particularly adept at translating the medium’s culture and technology for a lay audience. This includes those listeners unaware that their local Clear Channel station may well be operating on autopilot via remote control. He writes: “Clear Channel arguably innovated the practice of importing voice-tracked disc jockeys cross-country, whereby a D.J. in San Jose, Calif., would appear on the air in Boise, Idaho, making occasional references to local haunts, news events and the weather, giving every impression that he was in Boise. In truth, he had recorded his broadcast in San Jose weeks before, aided by a cheat sheet of local reference information.”

And Foege can obviously navigate a balance sheet, to say nothing of a Securities and Exchange Commission filing, taking the reader inside Clear Channel meeting rooms as the stock price of the overstuffed company plummets to $27.17 a share by August 2006 from more than $90 in early 2000. The reader is hardly surprised when Clear Channel begins reducing some of its holdings (including the spinoff of its concert division) before ultimately agreeing to be bought out by a private equity partnership in late 2006.

If there is a gaping hole in Foege’s narrative, it is one largely outside his control: the voices of his main characters are absent — like someone who chooses not to attend a roast being staged in his honor.

The Mays family, which founded and still runs Clear Channel, has long been reluctant to talk to journalists, and Foege has fared no better than previous suitors. “When I received the go-ahead for this book,” he writes, “I wrote multiple letters to Lowry Mays, Mark Mays and Randall Mays, informing them of my plans and encouraging their participation. In return, I received complete and utter silence — not even a ‘no thank you.’” Later, he adds, a Clear Channel publicist “fired off a letter to my publisher, threatening a lawsuit if I got any of my facts wrong.”

In their absence, Foege is forced to rely on scattered interviews with former Clear Channel associates and some competitors, as well as the groundbreaking work of other journalists, particularly that of Eric Boehlert of Salon.

The book also suffers from Foege’s uneven writing style. His prose can be as clear as a 50,000-watt station in the dead of night, only to become muffled a few pages later by crackling static. For starters, there are too many clichés. “It didn’t take a rocket scientist to guess the partnership would create heat,” he writes at one point. At another: “Clear Channel’s executives learned there was more than one way to skin a cat.” In his telling, too many entities are variously “spit out,” “coughed up,” “slurped up” or “hoovered up.”

Still, to those who care deeply about what has been lost, culturally, as Clear Channel has taken command of the public airwaves these last four decades, Foege’s effort is a noble one. And the story he tells is as important as it is unnerving.

Jacques Steinberg is a media reporter for The Times and the author of “The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College.”

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