Throughout the last election cycle, liberals built up radio conglomerate Clear Channel into a Frankensteinesque monster, created out of dead, soulless radio stations and brought to life with the twin goals of destroying all good music and serving right-wing interests.
But now that Clear Channel's profit motive is helping bolster the ratings of the Air America radio network, those who worked so hard to create this dark mythology are furiously attempting to deconstruct it.
Retiring a corporate boogeyman certainly has its perks. When a Clear Channel station in Portland, Oregon, picked up Air America, for example, Al Franken's show went from a dismal 26th place to third. Now approximately one-third of Air America's affiliates are Clear Channel stations. The liberal network is even getting back into the Chicago market from which conservatives gleefully watched it ignominiously removed shortly after debuting last year.
In fact, thanks to the much-maligned free market and the corporations that service it, Air America is becoming what critics said it could never be: a success. (Competition in radio, it should be noted, is still stifled and limited, but it's by hyperactive FCC regulators, not corporate ideologues.) Clear Channel has certainly been kinder to Air America than that curmudgeonly stalwart of the left, Ralph Nader, who derided the enterprise as "Hot Air America."
"So what, we're getting our message out there," Al Franken answered when recently queried about his connection with an evil conglomerate by a reporter from a San Francisco State University affiliated newspaper. "Clear Channel doesn't dictate Air America," he continued, adding with terrifying bravado, "No one has ever tried to dictate us, and if they did, I'd say, 'F--k you.'"
Of course, it's not so easy to turn the ship of anti-capitalism in mid-stream, and some folks are clearly having trouble making the transition.
"It is a conflict of interest for me because I don't support Clear Channel," San Francisco State student Rebecca Farmer told the same newspaper about listening to Franken's show. "Clear Channel is a huge conglomerate and kind of like a monopoly."
Meanwhile, Justin Felux, an activist based in San Antonio, chastised "white liberals" who have "in their zeal to find an alternative to Clear Channel...thrown their support to a network that is looking like Clear Channel-lite."
PERHAPS THE PROCESS OF white-washing Clear Channel for liberal sensibilities would be easier if the truth was finally told about the faux incident that made opposing the conglomerate a cause celebre: the blacklisting of the Dixie Chicks and the CD crushing rallies in the band's (dis)honor after lead singer Natalie Maines said she was "ashamed" George W. Bush was from Texas. Somewhere between the statement and posing nude on the cover of Entertainment Weekly, Maines unequivocally put the blame on Clear Channel for the furor, claiming the company was using its power "to promote a pro-Republican, pro-war agenda." Liberals rallied behind their country music comrades.
Now, setting aside the valid argument that the First Amendment is not a guarantor of radio airplay, the fact is that it was Cumulus Media, a much smaller company than Clear Channel, which banned and crushed the Dixie Chicks music. Despite Maines' allegations, Simon Renshaw, her band's manager, testified before the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee that Clear Channel had gotten a "bad rap."
Indeed. Since Clear Channel does not force play lists on their stations, some did temporarily stop playing the Chicks in response to local outcry. But the conglomerate's stations in totality actually played the Dixie Chicks songs far more than any other company in the controversy's aftermath.
To be fair, on its face, one can understand how many liberals would find cause for alarm. Clear Channel's head honchos in the Mays family are big Republican donors and their stations are home to hosts such as Bill O'Reilly and Michael Savage. But as Reason's Jesse Walker pointed out when this partnering between Clear Channel and Air America began to surface, "Even in blue America, money is green."
As Walker noted, a close, contested election combined with the huge success of Michael Moore in film was bound to get executives in all industries thinking about servicing a niche market.
IN A MAJOR ARTICLE on liberal talk radio in the Boston Globe this week, Clear Channel executive Steve Watkins said proudly of his company's plans to expand its relationship with Air America, "This dispels the myth that we're right-winged."
"We found that Air America is a real opportunity for us," Bill George, a programmer at a Clear Channel station based in Providence, Rhode Island, added in the same article. "I think the time is right. I think the talk world is much larger than the narrow right-wing views we hear from Rush and Hannity."
So now Clear Channel is also on board with the narrow left-wing views of, among other, new Air America host and shock TV star Jerry Springer, whom Jon Sinton, Air America's president of programming, described as "heavily enough anti-Bush to be credible for our audience."
At a recent event at the Loews Santa Monica Hotel, Franken enthused, "It turns out Clear Channel owns a lot of stations!" And, thus, the boogeyman becomes a furry little kitten to be stroked and cuddled. It turns out the radio conspiracy wasn't so vast or right-wing after all. But let's not hold our breath waiting for a retraction or for the folks over at Air America to start advocating the further liberalization of markets. The underdog rhetoric just sells much too well abandon it, especially on the way up.