HAPPY, HAPPY, HAPPY FRIDAY!" blares the voice from the radio. "It's Big D and Bubba in the morning!"
It's rush hour, so to speak, in Abilene, on a dreary day in late January. Big D and Bubba are country music disc jockeys on KEAN-FM, 105.1 on the dial, the number two radio station in town. This is their drive-time show. Today they are talking by phone with country comedian Rodney Carrington about his new pilot on ABC. "Do you know how cool that is?" Big D asks Carrington, referring to the TV show. "That is just awesome! This is your shot to make it huge, man!" They chat on for several minutes. Bubba and Big D are fawning and ingratiating; Carrington is funny and anecdotal. Then, unprompted, Carrington breaks into a little song that begins, "Do you want to do something that rhymes with 'truck'?"
To most listeners in the area, this might seem to be just another morning on a local radio show, but Big D and Bubba do not live within 500 miles of Abilene. In fact, they are careful never to reveal their true location—Nashville, Tennessee, where the two are employed at station WSIX-FM. Big D and Bubba's show airs in Abilene through the magic of a technology called voice tracking, which allows songs, ads, and promos from Abilene to be seamlessly matched with voices from Nashville. The same sort of cyber-radio is taking place down the hall at two of KEAN's sister stations in Abilene, KHYS-FM and KULL-FM. At KHYS, "Mornings With Chris and Dina" is actually voice-tracked from KZII-FM, in Lubbock, 150 miles away. At KULL—"Kool 92" oldies—midday host Gina Davidson is physically located in Biloxi, Mississippi, at station KMJY-FM. Nor is the "news" these stations air exactly local, or even proprietary. None of the three have a real news operation. They buy all their news from either CNN or from the TV station KTXS and run the same spots. Over at "The Talk of Abilene," KSLI-AM, 100 percent of the programming—which includes syndicated personalities Glenn Beck and Sam Donaldson and news from CNN—comes from somewhere in cyberspace, very far away. KVVZ-AM, "The Ranch," a "regional Mexican" station, plays music all day long like an automated jukebox. As far as one can tell, there are no deejays at all.
The common thread among all eight of these radio stations is their parent company, Clear Channel Communications. If you have been paying even scant attention to the news during the past few years, you have probably heard something about the San Antonio-based media empire. Since 1996, when Congress passed a law removing the limits on how many radio stations a single company could own, a handful of giant, Wall Street-driven radio conglomerates has emerged, effectively cutting the legs out from under the old mom-and-pop-dominated radio business for the first time. These include, among others, Cumulus Media, Infinity Broadcasting, and Emmis Communications (the company that owns Texas Monthly ), but by far the biggest is Clear Channel, which, in eight years, has gone from owning 40 radio stations to some 1,200—thirty times the previous legal limit—and which now has an astonishing weekly audience of 180 million people. In Abilene, Clear Channel's use of voice tracking, syndicated programming, and technology that links its stations together in high-speed digital networks are all hallmarks of the new, nationwide radio chains. So is its market dominance: In Abilene the company's six stations control 31 percent of the market.
But more than its extraordinary growth, the one thing you've probably heard about Clear Channel is that it has ruined radio. In the past five years the company has become the whipping boy for all of the perceived ills of the radio and music industries, pilloried in the press and tongue-lashed by senators at congressional hearings. If you believe its many critics, Clear Channel is responsible for a breathtaking litany of sins: the destruction of "localism" in American radio, the politicization of radio in the form of conservative talk shows and banned playlists, the spread of obscenity on radio shows, the taking of money in exchange for radio play. At a Federal Communications Commission hearing in San Antonio last January, hundreds of people waited in line for hours for the chance to tee off on the company they believe is destroying radio in America. For some time now it has been almost impossible to find anyone, anywhere, willing to defend Clear Channel.
The reason is no mystery: In the course of its $22 billion-plus buying spree, Clear Channel has become one of the most brutally aggressive companies in American business, frightening even the proponents of industry deregulation with the speed and scope of its acquisitions. The company owns far more than radio stations: It is also the country's biggest radio syndication company, featuring such personalities as Rush Limbaugh and Dr. Laura; the nation's largest concert and event promoter; and the largest outdoor advertising, or billboard, firm in the world. (It owns forty television stations.) Recently the company has leveraged these holdings in ways that have outraged people in the music industry, such as intimidating musicians into playing when and where Clear Channel wants by threatening to withhold promotion on its stations. The Department of Justice is now reportedly investigating the company for antitrust violations. The image Clear Channel has created for itself—that of a rapacious and unforgiving competitor—has turned it into one of the most hated companies in America.
But in spite of the ease with which the company has been demonized, Clear Channel, for all of its very real arrogance and excesses, is being unfairly blamed for the death of a world of radio that hasn't existed for at least a quarter of a century. There is no question that radio has in fact undergone a vast metamorphosis; it is far less local and more corporation-dominated than it used to be, especially in smaller markets like Abilene. Radio stations around the country are increasingly similar. Regionalism and once-common "regional hits" are dying,