Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Another Bush Era Symbol Crumbles

Yesterday Clear Channel announced it will lay off 9% of its workforce. While this is definitely bad news for the 1,850 people who have lost their jobs, this has to be good news for media consumers.

At its height, the behemoth known as Clear Channel had its fingerprints on a wide swath of media and entertainment. At one point or another they’ve had a virtual monopoly on concert promotion and radio broadcasting; owned large chunks of the outdoor advertising market (everything from billboards to ads on top of taxi cabs); and even owned television stations.

Many of these divisions have now been spun off into independent companies, but in its heydey Clear Channel was able to use its monopoly to wield tremendous influence.

Most famously, after 9/11 the company issued a playlist fatwa on a wide list of songs it deemed “lyrically questionable.” Everything from Van Halen’s “Jump” to Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water" to Cat Stevens’ entire catalogue were yanked from the air. When some Clear Channel stations joined in the Dixie Chicks blacklist in 2003, no one was surprised.

Censorship extended to the outdoor advertising division, with Clear Channel banning an anti-war billboard in Times Square, anti Wal-mart billboards, and ads promoting Harry Shearer’s satirical CD.

Inside the music business, touring artists chafed at the power wielded by Clear Channel’s live concert division. Competing concert promoters found their artists banned from Clear Channel’s local radio stations. Artists could no longer shop around for the best concert promotion deal in a region; it was go with Clear Channel or be frozen out of the market on the air and on tour. Clear Channel put its competitors out of business, or bought them outright.

Last July Clear Channel was purchased by Bain Capital (Mitt Romney’s company) and Thomas H. Lee Partners. Several media outlets are reporting that this is only the first round of layoffs.

When the dust clears, I hope what we’ll have is a more diverse media landscape, offering a wider variety of choices.

Authoritarianism, especially where the media is concerned, is just bad for business.