Magazine article New York Times Upfront

Big Radio's Bad Boy: Clear Channel Owns One of Every Ten Radio Stations in the Country. It Is Remaking the Airwaves and Making Enemies in the Process. Is This the Future of Radio? (Arts)

Magazine article New York Times Upfront

Big Radio's Bad Boy: Clear Channel Owns One of Every Ten Radio Stations in the Country. It Is Remaking the Airwaves and Making Enemies in the Process. Is This the Future of Radio? (Arts)

Article excerpt

You may not have heard of Clear Channel Communications, but chances are you've been affected by its growing empire. It owns the largest chain of radio stations in the country, along with the biggest collection of billboards and a growing number of TV stations and concert halls.

Among its competitors and some cultural critics, however, Clear Channel is referred to as "the evil empire"--or worse. They complain that the company, based in San Antonio, has made its money by filling its broadcasts with prefabricated non-local programming or with tasteless fare that hit bottom last year when one of its disc jockeys in Tampa, Florida, had a wild boar castrated and killed in the parking lot of his station while he described the scene and added recorded pig squeals on the air.

But in some ways, many rivals of Clear Channel are increasingly copying it. They are courting advertisers and listeners with moves that come directly from Clear Channel's playbook--even if they don't involve livestock. They are also scrambling to acquire more stations.

The reason is simple. Clear Channel, in the last two years, has acquired enough radio stations to dominate the industry. It now has about 1,200, roughly one-tenth of all U.S. radio stations. It ranks No. 1 in five of the top 10 markets and No. 2 in four others, sometimes commanding more than a third of all listeners. In some top-25 markets, like Denver and Cleveland, about half of all listeners tune in to Clear Channel stations. Inside Radio, an industry newsletter, estimates that Clear Channel has a larger national audience than the four next-largest broadcasters combined.

"They are very aggressive, so now we're more aggressive," says Lewis Dickey, chief executive of Cumulus, the No. 2 radio broadcaster as measured by number of stations--it owns 260, but expects to add more.

STRONG-ARM RADIO

Clear Channel's aggressive approach includes cost cutting. It has replaced many local radio hosts, for example, with recorded music spiked with local information for individual stations, or with syndicated talk-show hosts like Rush Limbaugh.

But with 770,000 billboards, 135 concert halls, and 36 television stations, Clear Channel also has the resources to undercut competitors on price while wooing advertisers with cross-promotion over many different media. Few rivals, for example, can promote a music group on their stations, book the act in their amphitheaters, then advertise the tour on their billboards.

"There is a very strong sentiment that they have done a disservice to broadcasting, by using their clout in a way that makes it difficult for smaller companies to compete," says Reed Bunzel, chief editor of Radio Ink, a trade publication. "A lot of people in the business really hate Clear Channel."

As rivals go on buying sprees of their own, thousands of one- and two-station broadcasters are hunkering down in their markets. Lacking the money to grow but mindful that radio is a local medium, these smaller companies are appealing more to local advertisers--sending DJs to car-dealership promotions and high school football games, for example. …

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