The Critical 'I'

Read. React. Repeat.

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

HOWARD STERN AND CLEAR CHANNEL'S POWER PLAY
At first glance, today's announcement by Clear Channel that it was suspending broadcasts of Howard Stern on its radio stations, coming on the heels of the firing of Bubba the Love Sponge, is an indication that the radio giant is really serious about stemming objectionable material from its airwaves.

At first glance.

Look closer, though, and you'll see some key differences between the Stern and Bubba situations:

- Stern is not an employee of Clear Channel; Bubba was. Clear Channel's relationship with Howard Stern is only as a station carrier of his syndicated show. Thus the suspension, which is really just a removal of the Stern show from Clear Channel air. Howard Stern will still be doing his show, and it will still be heard in most of the usual markets.

- Stern's show is produced in partnership with Viacom, which owns Infinity Broadcasting, which is the second-largest radio network, behind--hello!--Clear Channel.

The same reaction to the Bubba firing applies here: I find it hard to believe that Clear Channel only now determined that a show like Howard Stern's could be construed as objectionable. The motivation lies elsewhere, beyond a corporate impulse to conform to decency standards.

Clear Channel is orchestrating the current climate to put pressure on its chief rival, Viacom/Infinity. Much like the firing of Bubba was designed to appease the FCC and lead to a reduction in the levied fines, the Stern action is designed to give the appearance of "cracking down", when it's really an opportunistic power play.

I haven't written much on the radio industry in the past. Mostly it's because I don't think much of it, the dollars involved notwithstanding. Just these past two days of looking at the shifty moves of industry hegemon Clear Channel is enough to keep me away for a good long time.

UPDATE: Just to show how little this move impacts Clear Channel's bottom line and is done purely for show, the AP reports that only six stations across the country--out of over 1,200 Clear Channel owns--were running Howard Stern in the first place. Real chutzpah.

Incidentally, two of those six stations are in Florida, including Orlando's WTKS Real Radio 104.1 FM. I wouldn't be surprised if these were the only two outlets in the state that had the Stern show (although Miami probably has it, come to think of it). I've heard that you can catch WTKS on your radio dial in the extreme eastern reaches of Tampa/Hillsborough County, and that some Stern enthusiasts actually made a point to drive around that area during the show's broadcasts. I guess they're stuck with just the E! show now.