The Critical 'I'

Read. React. Repeat.

Saturday, July 12, 2003

So sayeth U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer, during Congressional oversight hearings this week concerning consolidation in the radio industry. Hearings spearheaded, it should be noted, by maverick (whether he appreciates that tag or not) Republican Senator John McCain.

Boxer's quote comes from a re-interpretation of the words of Lewis W. Dickey Jr., head honcho at Cumulus Media. Cumulus is the outfit behind the much-ballyhooed boycott of the Dixie Chicks a few months ago, which is the reason why Dickey was called on the Congressional carpet this week:

McCain repeatedly grilled Dickey: "Did you not order those stations to take the Dixie Chicks off the air?"

Dickey finally said yes.

McCain then asked: "Would you do that to me?"

Dickey replied, "No."

"Then why do it to a group of entertainers?" McCain asked.

Dickey replied that the ban was a "business decision. Our stations turned to us for guidance. There was a groundswell, a hue and cry from listeners."

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., countered: "I keep hearing you say 'a hue and cry.' Well, that happens all the time in this country. There's a hue and cry every time I speak out about women's choice. That's what happens when you have a diversity of views, discourse. A hue and cry is a beautiful sound. It's the sound of freedom."

Dickey acknowledged that his local station managers "fell in line" with the corporate decision.

"I don't think you know what you've done," Boxer told Dickey. "You've motivated us to look closely at consolidation. When you said earlier that your local staff 'fell in line,' that was a dead giveaway."

McCain said he was not concerned about free-speech violations at local stations that had initiated their own boycotts. "But this came from corporate headquarters. That's a strong argument that First Amendment erosion is in progress."

Sen. John E. Sununu, R-N.H., said, "Radio programrs should not be in the business of political censorship. They should be in the business of promoting political discourse."

The more interesting revelation to come out of this hearing was that Bruce Springsteen was possibly next on the hitlist, this time from industry heavyweight Clear Channel:

[Dixie Chicks manager Simon] Renshaw testified that during the episode, he received an e-mail from a Clear Channel [Program Director] whom he had never met that he found disturbing.

He said that Jay Michaels, the PD at Clear Channel country station WTXT Tuscaloosa, Ala., sent him an e-mail relating to Bruce Springsteen's statement of support for the Chicks on his Web site.

According to Renshaw, Michaels wrote: "Maybe Bruce didn't read what said. Let him say it and watch what happens."

A Clear Channel spokesman later told Billboard that Michael's e-mail was "misinterpreted, only speculation and certainly did not mean that our stations would be involved in any action toward Springsteen."

So does all this point to a right-wing conspiracy in radio broadcasting? My instinct says no, unequivocably. I'm convinced that the main motivating factor in the Dixie Chicks ban was the bottom line; Cumulus did it because it was a popular gesture and had a strong chance at attracting listeners. However, the Springsteen thing illustrates just how restrictive political environments become established. Regardless of the motivation behind the Dixie Chicks episode, it laid the groundwork for similar actions against others, and thus helped to institutionalize such behavior. That's where the danger begins.