How the giant media and advertising conglomerate got so big. (Hint: It wasn’t high-quality programming.)
Despite the title, Foege (The Empire God Built: Inside Pat Robertson’s Media Machine, 1996, etc.) doesn’t pay much attention to the proposition, loudly voiced by its many critics, that Clear Channel is a vocal ally of the right wing, broadcasting Rush Limbaugh and contributing big bucks to the GOP. He focuses more on dissecting the company’s role over the past two decades in massively consolidating America’s crazy-quilt network of local radio stations and analyzing what that has meant for the industry and the United States as a whole. The Texas-based corporation was started by Lowry Mays, a folksy San Antonio businessman who invested in a failing country-music FM station in 1972, when 90 percent of the country still listened to AM. Buoyed by the deal-making passion of Mays and sons Mark and Randall, as well as the shortsighted deregulatory fervor and merger mania of the ’80s and ’90s, the company began buying up stations at an increasingly accelerated pace. Today, Clear Channel is the largest media company in the nation, owning more than a thousand radio stations, dozens of TV stations, hundreds of concert venues and hundreds of thousands of billboards. None of this was done with an interest in anything but the bottom line. The company cared not a whit about improving the product, Foege makes clear, quoting a Clear Channel dealmaker who once said, “programming is the shit we run between the commercials.” Unsurprisingly, quality suffered as the company grew and flexed its muscles as a near-monopolistic power, running many radio stations in smaller markets by remote control and homogenizing content across the nation.
Close to authoritative but far from thrilling: Considering the tumultuous events the author chronicles, his account is surprisingly dry.