culture, politics, commentary, criticism

Thursday, July 17, 2003
It's their way on the highway. Chicago is a large American city where millions of people live and work. Interstate 94 is one of the main highways running through it, and if you drive its length within the city limits, you will see billboards for five Chicago radio stations: hip-hop and R&B
WGCI, "smooth jazz" WNUA, "today's hit music" KISS 103.5, soft rock WLIT, and "today's R&B and old school" V103.

What do these five stations have in common?

(1) They are all owned by Clear Channel.

(2) All of their billboards are also owned by Clear Channel.

During a recent drive I did not see a single non-Clear Channel radio station advertised on the entire 20-plus-mile stretch of Interstate 94 that snakes through Chicago.

Billboard spaces (called showings) on major highways rent for many thousands of dollars per month. The costs increase dramatically with higher traffic, location visibility, arterial street sightlines, and so on.

Does anyone truly believe that these five stations are paying cash at the exorbitant retail value of the billboards' placement? No doubt Clear Channel has established some kind of byzantine, cashless barter scheme in which only its own stations can participate. All other stations — the ones without sweetheart ad deals from their centralized owners — are left out in the cold.

With media consolidation continuing along its current path as sanctioned by the Republican-dominated FCC, not only will big media control the distribution of news and entertainment but also who gets to advertise.

The net result: based on the billboards they see, Chicago highway commuters are left with the impression that there are only five radio stations in Chicago — all of which are also quietly owned by Clear Channel. This is a market effect that FCC Chairman Michael Powell views as "competitive."

Many stations, many billboards, one exclusive owner. Ignoring the esthetic cesspool of consultant-decreed and format-driven commercial radio or billboard advertising for the moment, can there be a clearer or more glaring example of "unfair business practice"?

Just tuning in? Clear Channel is notable for being the largest radio consolidator in the US, with a weekly audience of over 100 million people, as well as for its recent funding and support of nationwide pro-war rallies in advance of the Iraq invasion.

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