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Broadcasting Justice: Unplugging Clear Channel

Jen Soriano and Kaira Espinoza
Date Published: 
June 01, 2006

Many activists often wonder how their organizing will be effective if the communities they represent have no voice in mainstream media. Youth and communities of color are not only being displaced from their homes; they are being pushed to the margins of public debate by mega-media companies whose bottom-lines are the “cha-ching” of rising profits. Like other resources, access to broadcast airwaves is increasingly controlled by corporate interests, shutting out those looking for local news, culture, and community perspectives.

The most infamous of these companies is, of course, Clear Channel—radio’s biggest corporate bully. If you turn your dial to a top-40, hip-hop, or talk radio station anywhere in the country, chances are you’re tuning into one of Clear Channel’s 1,229 stations. Earning 20 percent of industry revenue, the conglomerate reaches more than 97 percent of the US population through aggressive marketing tactics and consolidated ownership. Clear Channel also used changes in the 1996 Telecommunications Act to gain ownership of more than 700,000 billboards, newsstands in more than 600 towns, and 130 live entertainment venues worldwide. This “vertical integration” of information control has earned the conglomerate nine billion dollars and hefty weight in the political arena.

The consequences are frightening, particularly for youth and people of color. While we are aggressively targeted as consumers through corporate media advertising, we are also aggressively targeted as criminals through racist media content. And though we are marginalized from the white liberal movement for media democracy, our communities are on the forefront of organizing for media justice.

Right-wing radio

Clear Channel owns at least 200 conservative talk stations. While many corporations are careful to appear moderate to win bi-partisan support, Clear Channel is unabashedly on the right.

Take, for example, 910AM KNEW, a Bay Area-based station that is home to Michael Savage and his “Savage Nation” show. True to his name, Savage systematically puts down people of color, insults women and queer people, advocates for the deportation of immigrants, and calls for violence against Muslims. And he’s not alone; all other hosts on KNEW spew similar content. The result is 24 hours of repeated racist, homophobic, and sexist messaging.

Clear Channel has managed to plead the First in response to all objections to this right-wing content. Ironically, Clear Channel fails to apply the same protection to anti-war, pro-gay, and pro-worker content on all of its stations. Hosts, advertisers, and artists with progressive political messages have been fired, locked out, and rejected by Clear Channel’s biased decision-making.

People’s hip-hop

But in the Bay Area, activists have painted a bull’s-eye right on the conglomerate. In October 2001, Clear Channel laid off popular DJ and community affairs director Davey D. Cook from hip-hop station KMEL after he aired anti-war comments made by Congresswoman Barbara Lee. Hip-hop activists saw the political intent behind Clear Channel’s decision and decided that its chokehold on local radio demanded a grassroots response.

By August 2002, a community coalition had formed to protest Davey D’s firing and to demand greater accountability from Clear Channel. The Community Coalition for Media Accountability (CCMA) is made up of youth, arts, and media groups like Let’s Get Free, Mindzeye Artists Collective, Media Alliance, and the Youth Media Council. To document the lack of relevant community-related content on KMEL, we launched a month-long study of the station’s rush hour broadcasts. The study, called “Is KMEL the People’s Station?” (a name that plays on the station’s slogan), found that KMEL locked out the voices of local artists and youth organizers and disproportionately covered violence and war without policy context or solutions.

Organizers then used this study to pressure Clear Channel management for airtime on local issues featuring local emcees and youth activists. This was just the beginning of our campaign to build a real “people’s station” for the Bay Area.

Media justice

In June 2005, the Youth Media Council expanded the CCMA to include media activist and anti-war groups like Media Alliance, Code Pink, and the National Lawyers Guild and local artist groups and venues such as East Side Arts Alliance, La Pena Cultural Center, Company of Prophets, and Youth Movement Records. The combined resources of these groups armed the coalition with expertise in media policy, legal advocacy, direct action skills, cultural work, and local spaces for outreach and mobilization.

In December 2005, the broadcast licenses of all California radio stations were set to expire. The window for public comment was a short three months: from August 1 to November 1. This time the CCMA went on the offensive, seizing a once-in-a-decade opportunity to legally challenge Clear Channel’s right to broadcast on Bay Area airwaves. We crafted a two-tiered strategy of building listener opposition and a legal case against their harmful corporate conduct. Our primary tactics were online public education, postcard drives, direct action, cultural outreach, a sophisticated media advocacy campaign, and a legal challenge to Clear Channel’s license renewals filed with the FCC.

But developing the content of a grassroots campaign wasn’t enough. The Youth Media Council also saw the need to develop young organizers of color as savvy media activists to lead these efforts. To this end, we created the “Si, Se Puede” fellowship, a 10-week political education and skills-building program that trained six youth of color from low-income backgrounds in media accountability organizing.

Si, Se Puede!

Throughout the campaign to unplug Clear Channel and build a real people’s station, victories abound. In less than two months, the youth leaders of Si, Se Puede collected almost 1,772 postcards asking the Federal Communications Commission to deny Clear Channel’s license to broadcast. The Youth Media Council sent these postcards, along with four legal petitions, to deny the renewal of Clear Channel stations’ licenses. After dozens of news stories and a handful of actions, it was the legal challenge that forced Clear Channel to respond to listeners—the first official response received from Clear Channel during the entire campaign.

In 2003, after two visits with Clear Channel staff and management, the coalition won an unprecedented 2-hour live broadcast called “360 Degrees of Violence” in which youth, artists, and allies discussed solutions to police brutality and violence in their neighborhoods. In addition, KMEL started a local artist show hosted by E-40 and began to routinely place local artists in their weekly song rotation. According to Davey D., because of the grassroots activism of the CCMA, KMEL now plays more local artists than any other Clear Channel station in the country.

Next steps

The CCMA is moving into the second phase of our Unplug Clear Channel campaign, focused on sharpening our strategy, deepening our base, and influencing the FCC into making a decision on our legal challenge. At the end of the campaign, we hope to have built a new core of leadership to lead sustained media accountability campaigns, to have instituted fairness standards at one Clear Channel outlet, and to have a campaign model for replication across the country.

From San Antonio, where the Esperanza Center for Peace and Justice is resisting Clear Channel’s attacks on their organizing, to New York City, where the R.E.A.C.Hip Hop Coalition is holding HOT 97 accountable for racist content, the current movement for media justice is gaining momentum across the country. The demands are simple: make radio fair, accessible, and useful for everyone. Clear Channel has made only one thing truly clear: if we want radio in the service of justice, we’re gonna have to fight for it.

Jen Soriano is Program Director for the Youth Media Council and a media consultant for Filipino progressive alliance BAYAN-USA. Kaira Espinoza works for Accion Latina, an organization dedicated to cultural pride and social change in the Latino community of San Francisco.