A posse of politicians Tuesday rode to the defense of the Dixie Chicks.
At a Senate Commerce Committee hearing, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) led his colleagues in a tongue-lashing of radio giant Cumulus Media Inc. for its decision this spring to temporarily ban the country stars from some stations.
The ban came after lead singer Natalie Maines, upset as the White House prepared to invade Iraq, said during a March concert in London that she was ashamed that President Bush was from her home state of Texas.
At times likening the embargo to Nazi book-burnings and McCarthy-era blacklists, lawmakers said Cumulus' action illustrated the potential danger of allowing corporations to amass nationwide broadcasting networks.
"It's a strong argument about what media concentration has the possibility of doing," McCain told Cumulus Chairman Lewis W. Dickey Jr. "If someone else offends you, and you decide to censor those people, my friend, the erosion of our 1st Amendment is in progress."
If broadcasters are free to banish a musician, lawmakers asked, what's to stop them from keeping a controversial politician off the air or silencing discussions about hot-button issues such as abortion or gun control? "This sends a chill down my spine," said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.).
Cumulus' chairman said the 30-day Dixie Chicks ban wasn't politically motivated. "This was not censorship by Cumulus," Dickey said. "Cumulus has no political agenda. We were merely responding to listeners."
Dickey said Maines' comment about Bush sparked an unprecedented "hue and cry" from country music listeners. He denied that corporate executives gave their blessing to a promotion by one station in which Dixie Chicks CDs were smashed by a 33,000-pound tractor.
To underscore that the ban was a business rather than a political decision, Dickey noted that the company continued to air the band's songs on its Top 40-format stations because those listeners hadn't complained as much as others.
The group's manager, Simon Renshaw of the Firm in Beverly Hills, told the senators that many complaints stemmed from an "organized campaign to vilify" the band.
He said radio stations should be free to decide which songs to air but complained that Cumulus' decision "didn't have anything to do with music."
Lawmakers criticized Cumulus for caving in to a vocal group of listeners.
"In this country, every single day there is a hue and cry," said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). "That's what this country is all about."
McCain said his primary concern was that corporate executives at Cumulus headquarters dictated the ban, not permitting local radio station managers to decide for themselves.
Dickey agreed that the company should have left the decision to local program directors, as did other radio station chains, including Clear Channel Communications Inc.
Atlanta-based Cumulus has more than 250 stations. It is the nation's second-largest radio broadcaster, behind Clear Channel, which has about 1,200.
McCain, the committee's chairman, is emerging as a leading opponent of radio consolidation. Last month, he proposed legislation that would require industry giants such as Clear Channel to sell some holdings to come into compliance with new media-ownership rules approved by the Federal Communications Commission.
"The stakes are very high right now," said National Assn. of Broadcasters President Edward Fritts.