Thursday, January 11, 2007

Slate Further Questions the Minot-Clear Channel Urban Legend

Back in June 2005 I wrote about the Urban Legend that was growing up about the events surrounding a toxic gas spill in the area of Minot, ND and the supposed lack of responsiveness of the six radio stations owned by Clear Channel Communications in Minot. The media reform (sic) movement has used this story as the poster child for all that they claim is wrong about the state of media ownership in the U.S.

In his column in Slate yesterday, editor at large Jack Shafer, who often writes about media topics, takes to task sociologist Eric Klinenberg for opening his new book, Fighting for Air: The Battle to Control America's Media with the Minot story, despite some critical inaccuracies—or at least omissions.

Having already covered this territory, I won’t repeat them. You can read my earlier piece. But Shafer makes two other points that are worth elaboration.

First, Shafer reminds us of the increasing validity of the hypothesis advanced by economist Peter Steiner in his now-classic dissertation. As a reminder, Steiner proposed that a broadcast monopolist would be more likely to provide a diversity of radio formats than the same number of individually owned stations. Shafer states Steiner’s observation concisely:

Wherever a broadcaster consolidates ownership in a region, it will tend to diversify programming for economic reasons. Consider: If six companies own six stations in a small market, all six will tend to gun for the highest ratings possible and put the other stations out of business. Such a strategy will almost always result in duplication of formats, as was the original case in Minot. But when a single owner controls all six stations, there is no incentive to put the other stations out of business. He's more likely to diversify his programming portfolio to reach the largest aggregate listenership, which is what mega-owners like Clear Channel aim for when they own multiple stations in a market.

And, indeed, prior to Clear Channel’s purchase of the stations in Minot, they were held by two owners who competed on only three formats: country, adult contemporary, and news talk. When Clear Channel took over, it diversified the mix by adding a classic rock, a hits, and an oldies station.

But the bigger point Shafer makes, albeit in passing, that is “spot on” as my very British friends say, is that those who are highly critical of today's media ownership have no recall of what media content was like 20 or 50 years ago. Shafer simply says: “Now, you might be right that six of Minot's commercial stations went from serving three kinds of crap to six kinds of crap. But if you're willing to give the devil his due, you can't say that Clear Channel paved Minot's radio paradise.”

That is, when was the supposed Golden Age when broadcast entertainment or local news was better than today? In the 1960s, when Newton Minow was moved to proclaim it a “vast wasteland?” In print, was the Kansas City Star “better” before it was acquired by Capital Cities or Disney or McClatchy than when it was employee owned and pushed hard for the nomination of Gov. Alf Landon for President? Was it during the 1950s, when we only had AM radio stations, many of which used the same top 40 play lists no matter who owned them?

Finally, Shafer also takes Klinenberg to task for failing to note that there was another station broadcasting locally in Minot the night of the gas leak that broadcast no news or warning. But unlike the Clear Channel stations, which had local personnel, the other station was KMPR, a nonprofit NPR affiliated station that was totally programmed by Prairie Public, its parent company, 269 miles away in Fargo. It has no presence in Minot other than a broadcast tower. How come that is never mentioned as part of the Minot story by the “reform” movement? Guess it’s a piece of data that just doesn’t fit with the myth.

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