April 18, 2003
One Thing is Crystal Clear: Clear Channel is a Subsidiary of Bush, Inc
A BUZZFLASH NEWS ANALYSIS
"Rally for America," the supposedly politically neutral, homegrown events that started sprouting up in cities across the nation earlier this year, drew thousands of flag-waving, Dixie-Chick-hating folks who favor President Bush's war with Iraq.
The rallies also drew their fair share of criticism. Though sponsored by local radio stations, those stations share a common owner: the Texas-based Clear Channel Worldwide, Inc., a media giant with a nationwide network of 1,240 radio stations - and a clear line to Bush.
Numerous media outlets have raised questions about "Rally for America": Was it appropriate for a major media company to sponsor - and then cover - "patriotic" support-the-troops rallies? Of course not, but what do ethics matter when friends are involved?
It's no coincidence that Clear Channel executives Tom Hicks and L. Lowry Mays have contributed tens of thousands of dollars to Bush's gubernatorial and presidential campaign coffers. Or that Clear Channel gave $119,370 in "soft money" to Republicans in 2001-2002, this on top of the $82,850 it gave in 2000. (Democrats, meanwhile, got $25,000 in soft money in that same three-year period.) Or that Clear Channel stations have been known to pull radio ads criticizing Republicans.
So what, if anything, did Clear Channel hope to gain by currying favor with a pro-war Washington? Well, consider that Congress is currently studying the effects of media consolidation and may make changes that could affect Clear Channel's reach. Concerned that media ownership is concentrated in too few hands, Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wisc.) introduced the "Competition in Radio and Concert Industries Act" in 2002, which would limit further deregulation. The Senate Commerce Committee has held hearings on the legislation, and the Federal Communications Commission has scheduled a vote for June 2.
FCC Chairman Michael Powell - yes, son of that Powell - already has indicated that media-ownership regulations could be relaxed even beyond that of 1996 Telecommunications Act that enabled Clear Channel to go from owning 36 radio stations (four less than the former legal limit) to becoming the largest radio station owner in the United States. Clear Channel executives like Powell's thinking; they're not as fond of Feingold's.
After all, life's been pretty good for Clear Channel. While the number of radio stations it owns comprises 10 percent of the nation's total, Clear Channel takes in 20 percent of all radio advertising revenue ($16 billion in 2001) and reaches 25 percent of total listeners. It also owns approximately 39 television stations and more than 770,000 billboards.
Clear Channel is also the biggest live-concert promotions firm, which has angered some in the music world. Recording artists, for example, have alleged that Clear Channel "punishes" musicians who do not hire Clear Channel as their tour promoter by reducing the number of times their album is played on certain stations or by taking it out of rotation. Clear Channel, of course, denies the charges.
Certainly all the negative publicity has gotten to Clear Channel - it recently hired a public relations firm to improve its image and Washington, D.C. lobbyists to help its cause. Just last week, Clear Channel announced it was doing away with the pay-for-play system whereby record companies funnel money through independent promoters to radio stations in exchange for airplay. Instead, Clear Channel proposed a "new, restructured relationship with the recording industry . . . on specific group-wide contesting, promotions and marketing opportunities."
But less anyone thinks this is a step toward a new, improved Clear Channel, consider what one artist manager told the Chicago Tribune: "Clear Channel is getting rid of indie promoters so they can work more directly with the labels and artists? We'd better all keep a hand on our wallets."
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Clear Channel has long been a source of frustration for the music industry - as well as anyone who longs for radio diversity. But its political interests didn't attract much attention until recently.
After Sept. 11, to the amusement/horror of music critics and radio industry professionals, Clear Channel issued a list of 150 songs to its member stations that it deemed too sensitive to play in the wake of the terrorist attacks. The list included an odd mix of songs: the more understandable choices featured flight references ("Bennie and the Jets," "Ticket to Ride"); others were associated with New York ("On Broadway"); and, most surprisingly, many were related to peace ("Bridge Over Troubled Water," "Imagine"). The list also included all songs by the political rock group Rage Against the Machine. Clear Channel had, overnight, become the new arbiter on music-to-grieve-by.
One month later, the Clear Channel-owned radio station KMEL in San Francisco fired its popular community affairs director, David "Davey D" Cook, shortly after his show aired the anti-war views of Rep. Barbara Lee, the lone member of Congress to vote against military action in Afghanistan, and rapper Boots Riley of the Coup. The station claimed it did so for financial reasons.
As the San Francisco Bay Guardian reported in January 2003, KMEL had been a "national radio powerhouse" and was responsible for helping launch the careers of rappers like Tupac Shakur. All that changed after KMEL was bought by AMFM, Inc. in the late 1990s, which itself was bought by Clear Channel in 1999. As has happened in so many other cities, a once vibrant station was turned into yet another bland clone, and the firing of Cook only confirmed that KMEL was no longer interested in its community base.
Then, in 2002, Clear Channel gave $420,000 to the United Service Organizations "in recognition of the sacrifices made by the men and women in the armed forces. The donation will enable the USO to continue its mission of providing quality programs and services to our military personnel and their families," according to a press release. This "donation" raises more questions about Clear Channel's ability to provide objective coverage - which it also compromised with the "Rally for America." And it makes one wonder if the artists performing for the troops overseas had to sign deals with Clear Channel as well. It would be nice to think the $420,000 was nothing more than a benevolent gesture, Clear Channel's no-strings-attached gift to the troops (albeit one no other media owner seems to have made), but history makes this doubtful.
Earlier this year, a Philadelphia radio talk show host by the name of Glenn Beck proposed the first "Rally with America." Beck's show is syndicated by Premier Radio Networks, a Clear Channel subsidiary that also syndicates Rush Limbaugh and Laura Schlessinger, among other conservatives.
The idea quickly spread, with rallies taking place in Cleveland, Atlanta, San Antonio and other cities. A spokesperson for Clear Channel said the rallies were organized independently by radio stations in participating cities "in response to the expressed desires of their listeners and communities." They are, however, promoted on Clear Channel's Web site, and Clear Channel is the only major media company to back war-related events.
"I think this is pretty extraordinary," former FCC Commissioner Glen Robinson, who teaches law at University of Virginia, told the Chicago Tribune in March. "I can't say that this violates any of a broadcaster's obligations, but it sounds like borderline manufacturing the news."
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So how does any of this relate to Bush? Let's go back to 1989. Bush has just invested $605,000 - money he borrowed - in a syndicate that bought the Texas Rangers. (He would later repay the loan with proceeds from the sale of Harken stock remember Harken?). Though Bush had a 1.8 percent share of the club, the terms of this deal with the Rangers specified that once his partners made back their investment, his share would jump to 11 percent.
The Rangers' stadium was on the small side, so the new owners decided a grand, new stadium was in order. A 13-acre parcel of land bought in Arlington, Tex., at below-market rates. "[B]ush and his partners used Arlington's [municipal] powers to condemn the land for the stadium, and relied on taxpayers to repay the bonds sold to build the Ballpark - receiving what amounts to a direct $135-million subsidy," wrote Robert Bryce of the Austin Chronicle. (Indeed, a jury later found that the ballpark property's original owners were owed more than six times what they were paid.)
When the new stadium was completed in 1993, the value of the Rangers immediately increased by $26 million, to $132 million. In 1997, Financial World magazine named the ballpark the most profitable stadium in major league baseball.
But it wasn't worth $250 million. Yet in 1998, Tom Hicks, a friend of Bush's, bought the Rangers for this enormous amount, making Bush - who walked away with close to $15 million - a very, very rich man. But then, Hicks had done pretty well for himself in previous years, thanks in part to Bush.
When Bush became governor in 1995, Hicks, who was then head of the corporate raider firm Hicks, Muse, Tate & Furst, was confirmed as a University of Texas regent. Hicks hired lobbyists to garner support for a bill - which Bush approved - creating the UT Investment Management Company (UTIMCO), a nonprofit corporation dedicated to managing public university money. The best part: Bush also got rid of the requirements to disclose "all details concerning the investments made and the income realized" and to have "a well-recognized performance measurement service" review the investments. UTIMCO was, in essence, left to operate on its own.
Hicks became UTIMCO's first chair and started handing out contracts to private investment firms to manage some of the endowment. He was aided by none other than Clear Channel's chairman and CEO, L. Lowry Mays, who was also on the board (and still is).
According to the Houston Chronicle, by March 1999, UTIMCO handled more than $11 billion of University of Texas endowment money, along with the state's higher education trust, the Permanent University Fund. Close to $2 billion was handed to private investment management companies - hundreds of millions of which ended up in the hands of firms run by associates of Hicks and major Republican Party donors. One of them, the Carlyle Group, is well known for its financial relationships with President Bush and prominent members of the Reagan/Bush administrations.
Of course, this didn't sit well with everyone in Texas. Flogged by the press, Hicks didn't seek reappointment when his term expired in 1999.
No matter. Like Mays, Tom Hicks and his brother, R. Steven Hicks, had also gotten into the media business. In 1999, they merged their radios companies into AMFM, Inc. That same year, Clear Channel bought AMFM, and Tom Hicks became Clear Channel's vice chairman.
According to Salon's Eric Boehlert, who has written a series of articles on Clear Channel, Mays paid $24 billion for the Hicks' AMFM, thus positing Clear Channel as "king of radio's hill."
Money, remember, makes the world go round.
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What is clear about Clear Channel is that it can't be disentangled from Bush's personal fortune or his public policy. The merger of government and business in the current administration goes far beyond the workings of any previous president.
As Michael Lind, author of Made in Texas, told BuzzFlash in an interview, Bush, a failed businessman and mediocre student, excels at one thing: the practice of corporate cronyism. In the ideal world of corporate cronyism, a tight knit group of businessmen and government officials operate as one seamless entity of mutually beneficial economic forces. It's a plutocratic version of socialism, where the state and the privileged business compadres of those running the government march lockstep together to achieve corporate welfare goals, funded by the taxpayer. It's an economic system where access to the marketplace is limited to a close knit group of cronies and campaign contributors. It has as much in common with a truly free market system as Communism.
In the case of Clear Channel, the "Support Our Troops" rally was an extension of the Karl Rove strategy to force peace advocates to appear to be opposing our troops by not supporting the Iraq war. Furthermore, since the support for the war was lukewarm, Rove knew that the rallies had to be packaged as gatherings to show backing for the young men and women who would do the fighting. Clear Channel fulfilled this strategy, although the numbers attending their thinly veiled pro-war rallies paled in comparison to the hundreds of thousands who attended peace marches and events.
In many ways, Clear Channel has become the radio version of Fox News: You can find virtually nothing in its musical playlist or agenda that is not consistent with the Bush Cartel public relations agenda.
With increased deregulation, the mutual financial benefits that the Bush Cartel and the owners of Clear Channel have enjoyed will just be another representation of the growing cancer of corporate socialist cronyism, in which the crony media barons use their stations and papers to advance the political agenda of the Bush administration -- and contribute to Republican coffers. In turn, the Bush Cartel takes steps -- such as increased deregulation -- that enable increased profitability among the Bush Cartel media cronies.
Of course, if you are not a crony, it's not really socialism for you.
No, if you are not a crony, it's using the government for highway robbery -- by making such robbery legal.
A BUZZFLASH NEWS ANALYSIS
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For a visual rendering of the Clear Channel-Bush web, view the chart at Take Back the Media (scroll down).
otherwise noted, all original