In 1997, Charlottesville experienced its first wave of radio consolidation. In an article that appeared in the Cavalier Daily, Mike Friend, the owner and general manager of 91.9 WNRN made this prediction about the future of Charlottesville radio: "It's like the cartoon of the big fish eating the little fish, and the bigger fish comes up and eats the formerly big fish." He was, at the time, referring to the pending merger between the Charlottesville Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and Eure Communications. But the fish keep biting.

Eure owned two stations, WCHV-AM and WWWV-FM, before it acquired WINA-AM, WKAV-AM, and WQMZ-FM from the CBC. At the time, the CBC also operated WUVA-FM, so Eure assumed control of that station as well. The merger decreased the number of owners of radio stations in Charlottesville from six in 1990 to three in 1997. Two years later, the giant national corporation Clear Channel Communications bought five stations in Charlottesville (two from Eure), and a sixth in 2002. With the increasing consolidation of media outlets, many fear that mega-conglomerates that own a variety of broadcasting outlets will eventually prevent multiple points of view from sounding publicly, and rob the consumer of a public forum expressing a variety of opinions.

Clear Channel made its grand entrance by purchasing WFFX-classic rock, WHTE-top 40, and WCYK-country from Clark Broadcasting Company, which no longer exists. Clear Channel later acquired WCHV and WKAV from Eure. In 2000, the FCC ruled that despite the expanded regulations of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, Eure exerted too much influence by operating WUVA, and the station is now independently operated. But in 2002, Clear Channel bought WUMX 107.5, giving the company six stations in Charlottesville. Eure raised a red flag: Clear Channel was seemingly allowed to control six stations, but Eure was limited to the five station cap. The FCC announced that it would hold a hearing on the transaction, which has been put off for over one year now.

Mike Friend, the founder and owner of WNRN, asserts that Clear Channel will probably lose WUMX when the hearing occurs because it lied in the original application to acquire it, and that the sale will only clear if the FCC is pressured into allowing it. In the meantime, WUMX owner David Mitchell has received 80 percent of the $5.8 million, plus $10,000 a month for Clear Channel to lease the station from him. He'll get the remaining 20 percent of the sale price if and when the transaction goes through. In the meantime, the FCC revised the Telecommunications Act again in June 2003 to include non-commercial stations in the evaluation of a market. Since this caused Charlotteville's radio market to include fifteen stations, the ownership cap rose to six per entity. Now, Clear Channel is within legal ownership limits including WUMX, and it means that 94.2 percent of the Charlottesville market is controlled by Eure and Clear Channel. And according to Radio and Records, Eure owns three of the top rated stations (WWWV(2), WQMZ(4), and WINA-AM(6)) while Clear Channel controls the number one and number five stations (WCYK and WHTE), the last spot being claimed by WUVA.

Does Clear Channel's national presence lead to undue influence in the Charlottesville radio market over what radio listeners hear and what other stations will play to compete? Like countless communities across the nation, Charlottesville is becoming increasingly concerned about the standardization of its radio waves, and the disappearance of its mom-and-pop stations.

According to Brad Eure, the owner of Eure Communications, the most significant change that his stations made when Clear Channel stormed into Charlottesville was immediately to prepare to replace their broadcasts of the Dr. Laura Schlessinger show and Rush Limbaugh, for whom Clear Channel owns the rights. To account for "having two-thirds of [their] programming moved overnight to a competitor," Eure replaced those programs with Neal Boortz and Clark Howard's shows (to which Cox communications owns the rights) and that of Sean Hannity, which belongs to ABC. Eure commented on the potential WUMX sale by saying that having one entity control more than half of the commercial stations in Charlottesville would not be good for the city. He did not elaborate. He added, "We have made adjustments as we would no matter with whom we are competing. Keeping the music fresh, the promotions interesting, and the community involvement relevant is an ongoing process." For example, Eure Communications' station 3WV sponsors the annual Blues and Brews fest at the Charlottesville Downtown Amphitheater to benefit various organizations every year.

WNRN's founder and owner Mike Friend is equally skeptical of Clear Channel, although he also claims that the giant has inadvertently assisted his station. "In general, in a town like Charlottesville, they are a big help, but not on purpose," Friend stated in an e-mail interview. "Charlottesville is consistently one of the top non-comm [non-commercial] markets in the country…Clear Channel just 'doesn't get' markets like this." He further credited Clear Channel's "pathetic dumbed-down programming… heavy-handed sales tactics and incompetent billing" for sending several sponsors from stations now owned by Clear Channel to underwrite WNRN's programming.

Friend thinks that the reason that the FCC has delayed the hearing is because it "wants to avoid possible consequences resulting from Clear Channel's close relationship with the current president." Paul Krugman, in a New York Times article published March 25, 2003 explained "The vice chairman of Clear Channel is Tom Hicks...When Mr. Bush was governor of Texas, Mr. Hicks was chairman of the University of Texas Investment Management Company, called Utimco, and Clear Channel's chairman, Lowry Mays, was on its board. Under Mr. Hicks, Utimco placed much of the university's endowment under the management of companies with strong Republican Party or Bush family ties. In 1998 Mr. Hicks purchased the Texas Rangers in a deal that made Mr. Bush a multimillionaire." Friend stated that "any small operator who tried to pull what they did would have lost licenses and maybe ended up in jail."

Vinny Kice, the program director at Clear Channel's studios in Charlottesville, presents a different picture of the company. In the lobby of Clear Channel's Charlottesville offices, two awards recognizing Clear Channel's community involvement are prominently displayed. One was awarded by the American Cancer Society for Clear Channel's participation in the annual Relay for Life benefit, and the other came from the Red Cross for Clear Channel's sponsorship of some that organization's activities. Superhits (WFRX) sponsors Blood Drives, and Hot (WHTE) and Mix107.5 (WUMX) sponsor the chili cook-off at the Foxfield Family Race Day.

Clear Channel makes an effort to be involved in the Charlottesville community to counter the homogenization that comes with being a huge national corporation-seemingly without real community ties. Even many of the deejays on Clear Channel live in Charlottesville. Except for the KT Harris voice tracking mid-day on HOT (Harris actually hosts the show on HOT99.5 in Washington, DC), the Carson Daly hour on HOT, a mid-day voice-track on the country station, and maybe three to four hours of syndicated shows on the weekend, all the DJs live in or near Charlottesville. Vinny (who took over as host for the morning show on the FOX from the voice-tracked John Boy and Billy in the morning show, which is based out of North Carolina), PJ Styles, Nick Steele, and Justin Case are all right in town. Clear Channel did not fire "most" of the local deejays as has been accused; they released a few, and replaced them as well with local talent.

In light of the accusation that Clear Channel causes the automation of radio, one might keep in mind that Eure broadcasts nationally syndicated and well received shows. Kice agreed with the assertion that consolidation of radio stations has influenced the homogenization of radio, as everyone turns to computers for programming. However, all types of stations now use computers for at least some aspects of the programming, including Eure's stations and WTJU. (WNRN's Mike Friend distinguishes, however, the difference between the computerization of radio, which many stations like his own use for programming purposes, and the automation of radio, which reduces the need for live deejays. Friend asserts that Clear Channel uses automation at a much higher rate than independent radio stations do.)

As far as how Clear Channel determines playlists, Kice says that market research is conducted in larger markets to determine the playlists. DJs also may exercise creative control over what gets played; the songs are not dictated by Clear Channel. If a DJ is in-tune with some underground or under-appreciated band, it is his or her prerogative whether to play that band on the air, assuming it fits with the format of the station. This also means that smaller, perhaps more unique markets, like Charlottesville, probably have their playlist determined by listeners in a larger market like Washington DC. Tastes may differ between cities, but Clear Channel assumes that listeners will generally prefer the same songs.

Despite the size of the Clear Channel fish, the company has not been able to eat up all of Charlottesville. While the accumulated effects of the company's 1,200 stations nationally may raise more of a concern, locally the stations seem to understand the community in which they operate and utilize the resources available to them through their common parent. Clear Channel has not put anyone out of business, least of all the alternative radio stations that provide a more discernable product than competing commercial radio in the first place. Check out WNRN or WTJU or WUVA, and you may find what you want. And if you don't, try one of Brad Eure's five stations. If those eight choices do not satisfy your tastes, give Clear Channel a shot. The empire only extends as far the radio dials tuned to its frequencies.

 

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* Names have been changed.
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