Lawmakers grilled the chairman of Clear Channel Communications Inc. on Thursday at a hearing on claims that the company bullies artists, replaces local programming with automated formats and uses hard-nosed tactics against competitors.
Some of the hottest exchanges occurred between Clear Channel Chairman L. Lowry Mays and Robert Short Jr., a radio broadcaster from New York who accused Clear Channel of driving him out of business.
Speaking before the Senate Commerce Committee, Short said he was forced to sell his Syracuse station, WRDS-FM, after Clear Channel invaded the market, purchasing seven stations and luring away advertisers with offers of discounted rates and a larger audience.
"Clear Channel squeezed us out of the market," said Short, whose station catered to the local black community.
Mays characterized Short as a small broadcaster who simply opted to sell to a larger chain rather than compete in the modern-day radio industry. After the new owners of WRDS abandoned the station's urban programming, Mays said, Clear Channel attempted to fill the gap by changing one of its stations to an urban format and hiring a black programmer to select the music.
Short mocked Mays' attempt to take credit for serving the local community, accusing Clear Channel of pushing his station off the air and then stealing his format.
"You have a lot of audacity," Short said.
As expected, Clear Channel, which owns 1,200 radio stations nationwide, endured harsh criticism from lawmakers concerned about media consolidation.
Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain pressed Mays about reports that Clear Channel stations demand payments from artists and record companies in return for playing their songs, and that the San Antonio-based radio firm pressures artists to use its concert-promotion services or play at its concert venues.
Singer Don Henley testified that his manager represented an artist whose song was boycotted on Clear Channel stations after the artist refused to perform free at a promotional concert.
Mays denied the allegations.
"We have a zero tolerance for pay-for-play," he said. Airplay is determined by what local audiences want to hear, not by an artist's use of Clear Channel's other services, he said.
Edward Fritts, president of the National Assn. of Broadcasters, said that even with Clear Channel's growth, the company controls less than 10% of the national radio market.
He noted that Congress opened the door to greater radio consolidation in 1996 when it lifted the national ownership cap. At the time, more than half of all radio stations were losing money and it was hoped that consolidation would rescue the industry.
Rep. Howard Berman (D-Mission Hills) criticized the Bush administration, which he said has ignored his repeated calls for a Justice Department probe into whether Clear Channel has violated antitrust laws.