The whole story about that toxic spill and the Clear Channel "monopoly."

Media criticism.
Jan. 10 2007 6:15 PM

What Really Happened in Minot, N.D.?

The whole story about that toxic spill and the Clear Channel "monopoly."

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.

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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.

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.

Where I agree with Klinenberg and other media reformists is that the government has been too stingy in freeing up of spectrum and assigning licenses to aspiring broadcasters. If you regard Clear Channel as radio poison, the best antidote is competition. On that note, you'll be pleased to know that Clear Channel's Minot "monopoly" didn't last long. Unreported in Klinenberg's book is the recent arrival of two new, non-Clear Channel commercial stations to the Minot market—KWGO-FM and KTZU-FM.

Addendum, Jan. 11: Peter DiCola offers a learned critique of my piece in the Fray. He also notes that I repeatedly misspelled the last name of Clear Channel Chairman L. Lowry Mays in my piece. I have corrected that embarrassing error.

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Disclosure: Klinenberg interviews me in his book. Thanks to Thomas Hazlett, a George Mason University professor of law and economics, for his expertise. I expect to return to Klinenberg's book in a future column. Send messages telepathically through the ether or via e-mail: slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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