Broadcasting companies used to be constrained from owning too many radio stations; companies could own only two in any one market and no more than 28 nationwide. After all, radio airwaves are public property and should therefore serve in the public interest.
However, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 changed all the rules of media consolidation. Pushed through legislation by a GOP-controlled congress and signed into law by Bill Clinton, this law destroyed nearly all ownership restrictions on radio. These days, just a handful of companies control radio broadcasts in America’s largest markets.
The leading radio conglomerate by far is Clear Channel, which now owns over 1,200 stations nationwide and generates more than $3 billion in annual revenue. They own stations in 247 of the America’s 250 largest radio markets. Not only are they the world’s largest radio broadcaster, they are also the world’s largest concert promoter and billboard advertising firm…you’ve probably noticed their logo beneath hundreds of advertisements.
The company promotes a processed style of radio in which stations throughout the country play a standard selection of focus-group-approved songs. When it comes to talk radio, conservative pundits dominate their arsenal: Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage, Dr. Laura, Neil Boortz, Glenn Beck, and Bill O’Reilly have some of the top-rated radio programs.
They have also mastered the art of voice tracking, which creates short, computer-assisted voice segments which the listener is meant to think is being locally produced. Identical content is often broadcast on up to of 75 stations nationwide from a central site, which allows the company to cut down on payroll for in-house DJs.
After September 11, company executives circulated a list of blacklisted songs (including John Lennon’s Imagine, Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World, and the Elton John’s Rocket Man). For a complete list of banned songs, check here. They have also blacklisted bands that express public dissent towards the war or the president (first the Dixie Chicks, now Springsteen, Mellencamp, and Neil Young).
Clear Channel has also become one of the first media companies to sponsor pro-war rallies in cities around the country before and during the invasion of Iraq. This does not represent the objective stance that a responsible media provider should maintain in a truly democratic society.