Friday, June 24, 2005

Demythification: The Urban Legend of Clear Channel's KCJB, Minot, ND

This entry is a bit lengthy because I want to again address the need to employ fact and understanding to trump selective perception and social agenda mongering in determining media structure policy.

I have no need or interest to come to the defense of any media company, large or small. They can carry their own water.

But I do enjoy deflating urban legends. And much of what passes for “fact” or “evidence” of how big media is somehow lessening democracy or diversity or culture or localism is indeed myth or distortion. Some of it is repeated knowingly, by those with ideological agendas. In many cases, trusting innocents pass it along, much as they do those serious sounding viral emails about pleading for help for an ill daughter of a Wal-Mart manager in Idaho or some such contrivance. At least in those cases one learns to go to or where you can learn the facts. Here is my small step to demythifying an urban legend that involves Clear Channel Communications.

On page 40 of my Media Monopoly Myth study I mention an incident from 2002 as reported by the Washington Post in May 2003:

…Clear Channel owns all six commercial stations in Minot, ND. When a train derailment in the middle of the night released a frightening cloud of anhydrous ammonia, Minot police sought to notify the citizenry of the crisis. They called KCJB, the station designated as the local emergency broadcaster, but no one was home; the station was being run by computer, automatically passing along Clear Channel programming from another city.

The last sentence from a press release announcing availability of my study said:

There is no support for the contention that media ownership by chains or conglomerates leads to any consistent pattern of lowered standards, content, or performance when compared with media owned by families or small companies.

Within hours of the release of my study, an entry that cut and pasted part of the press release appeared on the Take Back the Media Web site from an anonymous poster who went by Stranger. To which Stranger responded: “'No lowered standards? The fine folks at NMRC [the organization that commissioned the study] are obviously not familiar with what happened a few years back in Minot, SD” followed by his recounting of the event. (Note that Stranger also placed Minot in South Dakota, even though the cut and paste he used to tell the story accurately places Minot in ND).

Typical of folks who already know the “truth,” if anything was obvious was that Stranger (and others who commented afterward) did not bother to read the study itself, feeling that reading the one page press release was close enough.

More critically, what Stranger and other Clear Channel bashers skipped, including North Dakota’s Sen. Dorgan, was first learning the facts behind the Minot incident. In a letter to Sen. Dorgan on February 12, 2003, Clear Channels’ CEO Lowry Mays laid out what in fact happened:

  • Station KCJB is staffed 24/7 with an on-duty announcer.
  • The local police tried to notify the station using an outdated emergency response hotline rather than the automated system had had been put in place in 1997. The obsolete hot line thus called into the station’s switchboard, which was also being flooded by calls from local residents seeking information.
  • Off-duty station personnel started coming into the station on their own as word of the derailment got out. They tried calling their police contacts, but the police phones lines were also inundated with callers, so the station personnel could not get through.
  • In the post-mortem after the incident, the KCJB engineer discovered that the Minot police had changed the emergency broadcast frequency they used without notifying the station, thus making the system incompatible.

In his letter Mays was too diplomatic to come out and say that the crisis had more to do with screw-ups by the local authorities than the result of programming on the station.

Half of Air America’s Outlets are Clear Channel Stations

Clear Channel was viewed as the Dark Force as well by a correspondent I quoted in my study on page 43. She had written me:

Clear Channel pulled Howard Stern from the air [from the six of their 1200 stations]. I am outraged. I am disgusted. I am affected because Clear Channel owns--thousands?--of radio stations throughout the country. And Clear Channel is conservative, and Clear Channel is TAKING AWAY MY RIGHT TO CHOOSE. Consolidation is not an issue we should be concerned about? … Clear Channel is a sticking point in my side because of its political affiliations (read: Bush administration) and clear dominance in the industry. They use their stations to support their own agenda (I'm talking specifically of the many pro-war rallies Clear Channel sponsored via radio stations--I believe Clear Channel helped create the cultural climate of "If you are against the war, you are against America”).

Again, some facts will provide perspective. According to Clear Channel’s Robert Fisher:

Clear Channel has no political agenda. Our local market managers decide what programming is aired. People assume that because we syndicate Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck, Dr. Laura and that we are headquartered in Texas that we are a Republican company. What people fail to realize is that profits trump politics. If our listeners are demanding certain programming, then we put it on the air. Take for example the new popularity of the progressive talk format (Air America). Clear Channel accounts for half of the Air America affiliates in the U.S. Local market managers started to recognize the popularity and demand for this format and made the local decision to flip the format of their stations. So regardless of some of the hyperbole from those with conspiracy theories that Clear Channel makes corporate decisions on programming, the fact is that local managers are making programming decisions based on the input from the communities they serve.

Once again we see that media companies, like other for-profit organizations, thrive only when they are responsive to some segment of consumer needs and wants. As I conclude in my study (and elsewhere):

Restricting their coverage, their range of films or magazine titles or news shows is not what the big companies are about. They seek to reach the mass market when they can and niche markets when they spot them. Given the vast diversity of interests in a nation the size of the United States there is potential profit in reaching the right wing as well as the left wing, in programming for Spanish speakers a well as English, in publishing books for escapism and for self help, in investigative reporting that is critical of government as well as editorials that may be supportive. And if the big guys don’t provide it, some small publisher or producer will.

Let me know of other urban legends in the media ownership relam, or anecdotes that need to be tested for accuracy.

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