Clear Channel Communications Inc., the nation's biggest radio broadcaster, is trying to beat its rap as the media conglomerate lawmakers love to hate.
But company executives may find Washington is tuning them out.
On the eve of today's Senate hearings into media consolidation, Clear Channel Chairman Lowry Mays and a newly hired lobbyist made the rounds on Capitol Hill, arguing that the acquisition-minded company -- which controls more than 1,200 radio stations and the nation's biggest concert business -- has simply done what Congress intended when it lifted radio station ownership caps via the 1996 Telecommunications Act.
"Stations were going dark. Facilities were not being modernized. Local news was being curtailed," said Andrew Levin, a former congressional aide who has been hired to make the radio giant's case. "All that began to change with deregulation."
But those arguments appeared unlikely to ward off attempts to curtail the San Antonio-based company's practices, beginning with what could be a rough session before the Senate Commerce Committee today.
Lawmakers are especially concerned by claims that Clear Channel has used its growing muscle to bully recording artists and homogenize playlists in a relentless quest for profit.
"They have a reputation problem," said Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.), who this week reintroduced a bill that would ban anti-competitive practices in the radio and concert industries.
Feingold will testify about his bill at the hearing, which is to be chaired by Arizona Republican John McCain. The bill would keep a company from threatening to withhold radio airplay from an artist who didn't use its concert venues, for instance.
The focus on Clear Channel's growth has intensified as the Federal Communications Commission launched a review of its media ownership rules, which restrict how large TV and radio broadcasters can become. One proposed change would lift the national cap on TV stations, similar to the 1996 rule changes that opened the door to Clear Channel's buying binge.
Even as Mays and Levin made their case, critics were working the same Washington turf. Singer Don Henley was among them.
"They wield too much power," said Henley, who plans to testify today on behalf of the Recording Artists Coalition. "Most artists are afraid to speak out because Clear Channel owns so many radio stations, but it's got to stop."
Henley, who plans to urge lawmakers to readopt radio ownership caps, said Clear Channel recently told his manager that it was upset he wasn't using its concert venues for a tour. Henley didn't accuse Clear Channel of making threats but said he felt pressured.
"They expressed enormous dissatisfaction with certain things, including my coming here to testify," Henley said.
Levin said he didn't know the details of Clear Channel's tour negotiations. But he questioned whether Henley's views might be colored by his relationship with his manager, Irving Azoff, who is a principal of Concerts West, a Clear Channel competitor on the concert circuit. Azoff could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
If the airwaves have become homogenized, Levin added, "we believe that much of the fault lies with the recording industry," which he said doesn't support enough new artists.
FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell surprised many recently by announcing that he shares concerns about the recent radio industry consolidation, even as the agency mulls over TV ownership rules.
"We don't have a tin ear for" this kind of complaint, Powell said Wednesday. "I am troubled by the way our rules work, particularly in smaller markets."
Last year, the FCC began to put the brakes on Clear Channel's expansion by rejecting the proposed acquisitions of about half a dozen radio stations in several smaller markets. The agency determined that even though the deals would not violate local ownership caps, they would still harm the public interest by giving Clear Channel too much power.
In response to such criticism, Clear Channel recently hired Levin, the former chief telecommunications advisor to Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) as its first full-time lobbyist.
The Texas company already has ties to President Bush. It has been a major donor to the Republicans and has contributed a lesser amount to Democrats. During the last two years, Clear Channel gave about $175,000 to Republican Party causes, compared with about $25,000 to Democrats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
But those efforts may not ward off continuing federal scrutiny.
"Should they be worried?" asked Andrew Jay Schwartzman, chief of watchdog group Media Access Project. "They should definitely be watching their step."
Times staff writer Jube Shiver Jr. contributed to this report.