Distress Signal

How San Antonio's Clear Channel Communications is ruining radio in your town—and in the rest of the country.

If you have never heard of a San Antonio company called Clear Channel Communications, it’s because you aren’t listening. From its unlikely nerve center in south-central Texas, this once modest, family-run owner of a handful of radio and television stations has exploded into a media giant, dominating radio like no single entity ever has before. Unleashed by government deregulation in 1996, founder Lowry Mays shelled out billions for properties like Jacor Communications and Tom Hicks’s AMFM, formerly the biggest radio conglomerate in the country. Today one of every ten commercial radio stations in the United States belongs to Clear Channel—including six stations in Dallas-Fort Worth, eight stations in Houston, seven stations in San Antonio, six stations in Austin, six in El Paso—a total of more than 1,200 domestic channels in some 250 markets. Its closest rival, Cumulus Broadcasting, has 240 stations. ( Texas Monthly’s parent company, Emmis Communications, owns 23 radio and 15 TV stations and is another of Clear Channel’s competitors.)

Clear Channel’s manic, multimedia shopping spree didn’t end there. Last year it also bought SFX Entertainment, which owns the majority of the outdoor amphitheaters in America, including the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater near San Antonio, the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion near Houston, and a minority interest in the Smirnoff Music Centre (Starplex) in Dallas, as well as dozens of theaters and other performing venues. This instantly made the company’s subsidiary Clear Channel Entertainment the dominant concert promoter in the United States. And wait, there’s more: Clear Channel now has the second-largest number of billboards of any company in the United States, nineteen television stations, and nine hundred radio and TV Web sites. The company, which was founded in 1972, has doubled in size every eighteen months over the past five years.

All of this may sound like harmless, run-of-the-mill media giantism in the early twenty-first century. Unfortunately it’s not, especially the way the Mays family—Lowry and his sons, Mark and Randall, the company’s iron triangle—plays the game. In fact, they give new meaning to the phrase “control of the airwaves.” Their size and aggressiveness have given them unprecedented say not only over what you hear on the radio all over the country but in how music is sold, promoted, and performed. As the big guys on the block—who dictate programming at 1,200 stations—they

More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...