Oligopoly brief: Clear Channel

Clear Channel is the dominant player in the radio business. The company owns 1,240 AM and FM stations across the United States. It owns stations in 248 of the top 250 radio markets. As one writer

Oligopoly brief: Clear Channel

Clear Channel is the dominant player in the radio business. The company owns 1,240 AM and FM stations across the United States. It owns stations in 248 of the top 250 radio markets. As one writer puts it, ” Clear Channel in particular dominates the Top 40 format (KIIS-FM in Los Angeles, WHTZ and WKTU in New York, KHKS in Dallas, WXKS in Boston, WHYI in Miami, etc.) and controls 60 percent of rock-radio listening.”
Clear Channel has over 100 million US listeners. The company, by one reckoning, reaches a third of the US population each week. Only one rival, Viacom, runs a distant second with 180 stations.

This has not always been so. In 1996, Clear Channel was limited, like all other radio broadcast chains, to owning only 28 stations nationwide, and only two locally. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 dropped any limitation. Clear Channel (and Viacom) went on a buying spree, increasing the number of channels it owned by thirty times in less than eight years. The company has gone from being a small, niche company to being the principal gatekeeper of the music industry and the main source of radio advertising for the crucial young consumer market. To many outsiders, it is a symbol of all that is wrong with deregulation.

Aside from radio stations in the US, Clear Channel has a growing portfolio of holdings (it can hardly expand any more in that market), It owns 19 television stations. It owns 700,000 outdoor billboards worldwide, second only to radio rival Viacom. It has a partnership position in some 240 channels worldwide. It has a major position in the Hispanic Broadcasting Services, the largest radio network for Latinos in the US. It is the leading radio broadcaster on the Internet.
Moreover, Clear Channel has marketing firms, radio consultancy, an airplay monitoring system (competing with Arbitron), local radio news networks, program production and syndication, even trade magazines. Most significant, a few years ago it bought SFX Entertainment, which owns a large number of the largest concert venues, books many more exclusively, and promotes music tours. It also is now producing Broadway shows (Hairspray, Gypsy, Movin' Out) and operates a number of theaters.

Size gives Clear Channel many advantages. These include:

  • The ability to set radio advertising rates, which have gone up spectacularly in the last few year. If you want to reach a certain market, Clear Channel may be the only way. They also can “suggest” package deals using their outdoor advertising as well.
  • The ability to make and break musicians, It controls shelf space nationwide, decision making is centralized, and whether they choose to pick up a new single or not makes or breaks a pop record. Artists have to play along, and deliver music that will please Clear Channel's programmers. If they want to have promotional tours, Clear Channel is the only show in town.
  • The ability to dictate to recording companies. This means payola, in the guise of promotional payment made through third-party agents called “indies”. If a company wants a hit, it has to pay Clear Channel for air time.
  • The ability to control programming on their station, and to regulate who gets on and who doesn't. In the talk radio area, that means that favored conservative commentators like Rush Limbaugh and Dr. Laura Schlesinger. They also tend to get rid of local programming, using so-called “cyber jocks” that are heard in many markets. This de-localizes what was once a very local medium.
  • The ability to industrialize the delivery system. Clear Channel stations, base d on their formats, pretty much all play the same song titles at the same time. It's generally noted that the music played on radio all sounds like the same cookie-cutter stuff, and it's no wonder, since it is filtered through the same small group. This homogenization and mediocrity has led to a 15% decline in radio listening in the past 7 years. However, being in a tight oligopoly, Clear Channel makes even more money with fewer listeners.
  • Unprecedented political clout. Through a campaign of political giving, especially to Republicans, Clear Channel has the ears of those in power. No radio regulation will ever pass without their consent.

Clear Channel has not scrupled to use those many powers. It is generally considered a big bully, reviled by the rest of the industry. As Eric Boehlert notes in his must-read Salon article,

Over the past few years, there has been no shortage of industry players who would rail about Clear Channel and argue that the company was “ruining radio in so many different ways.” …

“They're definitely bullies, no question about that,” says Ed Levine, chairman of Galaxy Communications, whose stations compete with Clear Channel in several upstate New York markets. “They've truly become the evil empire. Like everything else, Clear Channel has gone too far, gotten too greedy and too powerful. As a broadcaster who grew up in the business I don't believe their overall net effect for radio has been positive.”

The radio industry consolidation and the activities of the Clear Channel are for many a hint of what the FCC will be willing to permit in other media. And Clear Channel, with its pockets bursting and its history of massive deals for media properties, is likely to end up a major player in other media branches.  [Oligopoly Watch]

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