For proponents of "media reform," Minot, N.D., carries the same resonance as Three Mile Island does for anti-nuke activists or Columbine, Colo., does for gun-control advocates. Nary an article, speech, or book brushes up against the topic of media reform without retelling the story of how Minot's radio stations responded the January 2002 night that a Canadian Pacific Railway train derailed and discharged a cargo of poisonous anhydrous ammonia a couple of miles from downtown Minot.
Eric Klinenberg begins his new book, Fighting for Air: The Battle To Control America's Media, with the Minot incident, and like other media reformists uses the poor showing by Clear Channel Communications' six Minot radio stations the night of the spill as a symbol of all that stinks about corporate media concentration.
To generalize, the media reformists deplore corporate consolidation of media, especially Clear Channel, which owns about 1,150 of the nation's 13,000 radio stations and owns or operates 40 U.S. television stations. The reformists monitor the press for right-wing and even centrist bias; condemn what they regard as intrusive advertising; urge the creation of a new tier of low-power, noncommercial broadcasters; and call for the breakup of some media conglomerates. (For an overview of the movement, see this 2002 article from The Nation,co-written by media reform godfather Robert W. McChesney.)
Because Minot is so central to media reformists' argument, it's worth revisiting the story to see what happened there. Klinenberg, a meticulous reporter, actually went to the town to recount the story. In doing so, he gets it about 99 percent right but 100 percent wrong.
One of his errors is trivial. Indeed, Clear Channel owned six stations in the town in January 2002, as he reports, but he mistakenly calls one of the town's other stations, KHRT, a "noncommercial" Christian station. In fact, KHRT is for-profit and has always been, according to program director Jonas Nelson, and it is actually two stations—KHRT-AM and KHRT-FM. Asserting that Clear Channel was Minot's only commercial broadcaster in Minot is a mistake that both the Washington Post (May 18, 2003) and the New York Times (March 31, 2003) made, so Klinenberg is in good company.
Another station was broadcasting from a Minot transmitter that night, something that Klinenberg doesn't report: KMPR, a noncommercial station with a big footprint at 88.9 FM. Unlike the Clear Channel stations and Christian stations, KMPR had no local presence at all. All of its programming came from Prairie Public, which is headquartered in Fargo, N.D., 269 miles away.
If the average person knows anything about the Minot story, it probably maps to the folklorical account published by the Washington Post in 2003. The Post stated:
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.
Clear Channel argues that only a technical glitch prevented word from getting through. But glitches aside, the six stations now have only one news employee among them.
Klinenberg's account of that night is actually more generous to Clear Channel. The Emergency Alert System—a federal system that that takes the place of the old CONELRAD warnings—allows the government or the National Weather Service to break in on the broadcasts of designated stations to dispense lifesaving information during a disaster or crisis. Clear Channel's KCJB was the designated EAS station for Minot, but when Minot authorities attempted to use the EAS, they failed. Their efforts to telephone somebody directly at the station for EAS assistance (nobody answered), or to use the earlier alert technology (EBS) to accomplish the same thing, also failed.
Meanwhile, as a 350-feet-high vapor cloud rose from the 250,000 gallons of spilled anhydrous ammonia to cover a 5-by-2.5-mile stretch, all six of Clear Channel's Minot stations continued to pump out their automated entertainment. One person died, and a thousand were injured.