What Really Happened in Minot, N.D.?
The whole story about that toxic spill and the Clear Channel "monopoly."
Clear Channel says that the communication breakdown wasn't its fault. In a Feb. 12, 2003, letter from Clear Channel Chairman L. Lowry Mays to Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, D-N.D., obtained by scholar Benjamin M. Compaine, Mays places the screw-up at the door of the local authorities and a government contractor.
Mays writes that during its post mortem, Clear Channel learned that police didn't "completely understand the new capabilities of the EAS system," that "the government contractor did not correctly install the system," and that "the authorities did not receive complete training on the system."
Mays additionally claims that:
… the police department had changed their EAS frequency, without informing our radio staff, which resulted in incompatible crystals. This meant that the transmitter at the station and the transmitter at the police department couldn't communicate with each other.
(For more detail on the EAS fiasco, see this article from the Law Enforcement News.)
Klinenberg tells me that because he couldn't unearth conclusive evidence as to who was to blame, he reported the disagreement. He does insist, however, that by virtue of owning six stations in such a small town, Clear Channel has an obligation above and beyond its EAS responsibilities to staff its studio with a human being 24/7 who can receive calls and broadcast emergency alerts. Clear Channel says that there was somebody at the studio that night, but Klinenberg says the company has never explained why none of its stations issued an early warning about the toxic cloud. Point to Klinenberg.
Lest anybody accuse me of being a fan of Clear Channel, let me testify that I would rather have my inner ear dug out with an ice pick than have to listen to more than 15 minutes any of Clear Channel's blandly formatted, advertising-saturated stations where I live.
But just because Clear Channel does not fly with the angels does not make it a devil. When the company made its Minot acquisitions in 2000, it merely completed the radio consolidation that was already afoot: The six stations weren't owned by six mom 'n' pop broadcasters but by two broadcasters. Speaking before a Senate committee investigating media ownership, Clear Channel Chairman Mays said the Minot stations represented only three radio formats before the company made its acquisitions—country, adult contemporary, and news talk. Clear Channel diversified the mix by adding a classic rock, a hits, and an oldies station.
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.
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.
The economic incentive to occupy as many strong programming niches as possible is so great that the scurvy bastards at Clear Channel even broadcast the liberal Air America network in about 17 markets. Of course, Clear Channel cancels Air America where it doesn't attract a sufficient audience, but it was forced to back down from such plans late last year in Madison, Wis., when thousands protested.