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.
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
just 'doesn't get' markets like this." He further credited Clear
Channel's "pathetic dumbed-down programming
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
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.
books, those colorful compilations of pictures heralding the adventures
of superheroes and the super-villains they combat used to appeal to adolescent
males. Now, comic books appeal to those same boys, except those boys have
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the language that the characters use is more sophisticated, the violence
more graphic, the female characters less clothed, and the stereotypes
more subtle in a way that makes them more menacing.
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