Static over the airwaves

Whatever happened to commercial radio?

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Saddled with a low-rated radio station in San Antonio in the 1970s, an executive came up with a bright idea. He'd order a popular news reporter to air a positive story about a local business. Then – surprise! – the business would get a call from the station. Perhaps it was interested in buying some commercials?

"We were in the business of sales; we were not in the business of programming," the executive explained later.

In other words: ethics, schmethics.

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Critics say the station's owner, the fledgling Clear Channel company, never abandoned its money-grubbing roots as it grew into a 21st-century chain of 1,200 radio stations with sidelines in television, billboards, and concerts.

Haughty and uncouth, Clear Channel executives ignored accusations that they accelerated radio's skid into canned programming and bland formats. Now the company is in trouble, paying a big price for what writer Alec Foege calls its "dunderheaded thinking."

Unfortunately, the overseers of the airwaves rarely come alive in Foege's new book Right of the Dial: The Rise of Clear Channel and the Fall of Commercial Radio. Access is part of the problem. Clear Channel executives refused to help Foege and even threatened to sue if he got anything wrong. (Talk about a negative attitude!)

To his credit, Foege treats the company fairly as he recaps Clear Channel's many missteps. But he never fully explains how Clear Channel changed the radio landscape. Is commercial radio really worse than it was 15 or 30 years ago? And if so, why haven't more listeners abandoned it for satellite radio and iPods? Notwithstanding the book's title, commercial radio is hardly in its death throes, although it's certainly seen better days.

Another problem with the title: the words "Right of the Dial." There's no evidence of a conservative conspiracy inside the company. Yes, some executives supported President Bush. But several Clear Channel stations joined a liberal talk network, and the company even produces programming aimed at the gay community.

Money, not ideology, has always been Clear Channel's main mission. But as it looks ahead, another priority or two wouldn't hurt.

[Editor's note: The original version misspelled the name of the book's author.]

Randy Dotinga has written a newspaper column about radio for 10 years.

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