June 8, 2006 – A broadcasting giant that swallowed up more than 1,200 radio stations across the country after Congress relaxed ownership rules a decade ago is once again at the center of controversy over offensive programming. But this time, Clear Channelâ€™s ongoing tolerance of "shock-jock" programmers resulted in on-air threats of death and references to sexually assaulting a 4-year-old girl on one of the New York Cityâ€™s highest-rated urban stations.
New York City police last month arrested Troi Torain, also known as DJ Star of the nationally-syndicated "Star & Buc Wild Morning Show." They charged him with harassment and endangerment of a child.
Torainâ€™s tirade about a rival DJâ€™s family also included racial and sexual slurs against the deejayâ€™s wife. Clear Channel then fired the top-rated personality, who has a reputation for hateful, racist programming, but only after city leaders held a press conference denouncing his behavior. The company issued a statement apologizing "to those who may have been offended by his remarks."
"The corporate titans at Clear Channel are off their rockers if they think that issuing a tepid, meanings apology is sufficient," John Liu, New York City council member told The NewStandard.
Long-time critics of Clear Channel, including media diversity activists and community organizations, are using the event to reignite a national movement against the company and remind people about the responsibility of broadcasters to serve the public interest in exchange for their free use of the public airwaves.
"The corporate titans at Clear Channel are off their rockers if they think that issuing a tepid, meanings apology is sufficient," said John Liu, New York City council member.
Activists say that despite millions of dollars in federal fines and settlements, and promises to adopt a zero-tolerance approach to "indecency," Clear Channel continues to use "hate radio" as a business model, supporting derogatory programming because it attracts advertisers.
Last month, media reform, training and access groups launched the "No Hate Radio" campaign. Groups, including New York-based Radio Rootz, San Franciscoâ€™s Youth Media Council and the national organizing groups Prometheus Radio Project and Free Press, are urging people to file complaints with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) about Clear Channelâ€™s broadcasts through the nohateradio.org website. They are also asking the agency to consider the need for more diverse, local voices on radio stations.
Hannah Sassaman, an organizer with Prometheus Radio Project, a group that helps communities set up low-power FM stations, said itâ€™s too easy to describe the Star & Buc Wild fiasco as a DJ simply disrespecting people.
"We need to think about the root cause of the problem," Sassaman told TNS. "Why is the local community in New York not getting enough access to the airwaves to be able to put alternatives to Star & Buc Wild on the air? Why is Clear Channel able to put this content on the air without being vulnerable to the opinion of the community?"
"People need to understand that there could be real consequences to hate speech. And that ends up with vandalism to mosques or threats against ordinary Muslims or discrimination and bias."
Clear Channel declined TNSâ€™s request for an interview.
A similar campaign, "Hate Hurts America," was launched in 2004 by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) to encourage radio listeners to issue complaints to the FCC about anti-Muslim radio content. The campaign also targeted advertisers, requesting they pull their business from stations that promulgate such programming.
"Weâ€™ve had a number of these kinds of campaigns in our history," CAIR spokesperson Ibrahim Hooper told TNS. "We donâ€™t like doing them, but what can you do when on a daily basis a talk-show host spews venom against your faith? You have to defend your faith by any legitimate means."
In March 2004, according to CAIR, they filed complaints with the FCC after a Los Angeles Clear Channel station, KFI AM 640, aired a skit that described Muslims having sex with animals, killing Jews and not bathing. The station offered an apology, but two years later, in January 2006, the same programmer, Bill Handel, mocked the deaths of Muslims killed on their pilgrimage to Mecca.
"People need to understand that there could be real consequences to hate speech," said Hooper. "And that ends up with vandalism to mosques or threats against ordinary Muslims or discrimination and bias."
According to CAIRâ€™s 2005 report, "Status of Muslim Civil Rights in the US," the organization received 1,522 complaints of harassment, violence or discrimination against Muslims in 2004, a 49 percent increase from the year before.
For groups that have been working to demand accountability from Clear Channel, the recent incidents of hateful, racist programming are not surprising, but part of a long history of the company staffing popular stations with programmers who use sexism, racism and homophobia to create a stir.
Grassroots media groups say the FCC model of fining stations for offensive broadcasts will not solve the growing problem of corporate radio programming that fails to serve the public interest.
In fact, the company has hired some controversial talk-show hosts that other stations fired because of their offensive speech or programming. Clear Channelâ€™s KNEW in San Francisco hired Michael Savage shortly after he was fired from MSNBC for labeling a caller a "sodomite" and telling him he should "get AIDS and die."
Likewise, the company hired Rick Del Gado at KLYD, another of its eleven stations in the Bay Area, after he was fired from New Yorkâ€™s Hot 97 for producing, singing and airing the notorious "Tsunami Song," a derogatory and racially-charged parody of the 1985 song "We Are the World."
Taishi Duchicela, media-justice organizer with the Youth Media Council, said the hiring of Del Gado in San Francisco demonstrates Clear Channelâ€™s lack of respect for the communities where it owns stations.
"You donâ€™t hire somebody whoâ€™s been previously disrespectful to a certain community in a community that is predominantly [Asian]," said Duchicela. "You canâ€™t do that," she added.
Youth Media Council has been organizing against Clear Channel since 2001, after Dave "Davey D" Cook, a long-time progressive activist and program host at the companyâ€™s KMEL, was fired allegedly for airing voices that opposed the war in Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The organization held protests, conducted a month-long study of Clear Channel programming, and attempted to dialogue with station managers about the loss of community-focused programming.
Duchicela said it was important for them to highlight the type of content Clear Channel was broadcasting to communities of color and youth â€“ one of the companyâ€™s biggest audiences in the Bay Area.
The organization studied 24 drive-time broadcasts and found that the station focused on violence and crime without looking at the root causes of these problems; that it blamed individuals for these problems and neglected discussions of solutions and public policies; and that it excluded the voices of youth organizers and local artists.
The group also used its report to offer suggestions to KMEL to engage the community, hoping to build relationships with management and provide more balanced coverage and more community access to the airwaves. But Duchicela said that when the station did not meaningfully respond, the group launched a new campaign in November 2005, filing petitions with the FCC to revoke four of Clear Channelâ€™s local radio licenses . The petitions accused the company of failing to serve the public interest.
This tactic, which Duchicela said is more symbolic than pragmatic, is also being used by media activists in the small city of Binghamton, New York, where Clear Channel and Citadel broadcasting own eleven out of sixteen stations between them. Media activist Bill Huston, one of five people filing the petitions, said these companies "function not to inform, but only to maximize profits for their distant stockholders."
"The prescription of the media problems which now affect Binghamton have been replicated all over America," said Huston in an email interview with TNS. "Generally, the result has been: more automation, more voice tracking and satellite-sourced programs, more formulaic music-format programming, less risk taking, less autonomy of local management, less local news, local public affairs, less local anything."
Grassroots media groups say the FCC model of fining stations for offensive broadcasts will not solve the growing problem of corporate radio programming that fails to serve the public interest. Some say Congressâ€™s attempt to address what it considers objectionable material â€“ voting to raise fines from the maximum of $32,500 to $325,000 â€“ would likely only hurt smaller stations, hardly stinging companies with deep pockets, like Clear Channel and Citadel.
While the FCC regulates "indecent," "profane" and "obscene" radio and television programming, hate speech is protected under the First Amendment.
Jonathan Rintels, executive director of the Center for Creative Voices in Media, an independent artistsâ€™ advocacy group, said federal indecency definitions are written so vaguely that they render the appointed FCC commissioners "cultural commissars" who regulate indecency on the basis of whims.
Rintels said lawmakers and the FCC need to seriously consider the "unintended consequences" of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which greatly weakened radio and television ownership limits, including the increase in offensive programming.
Rintels said there is a role for regulation, but it should be restrained, seldom used, and highly sensitive to free speech issues. He emphasized that they do not want to see any stationâ€™s license revoked due to indecent or offensive content.
"If you want to do something about indecency," he said, "restore local ownership to radio because local owners are far more responsive to local audiences and their tastes."
Sassaman of Prometheus Radio agrees that the issue is not about whether the FCC revokes licenses of the biggest broadcasters with the most complaints, but about convincing the FCC that community groups, municipalities, local churches and local schools are the most appropriate guardians of broadcast licenses. She said her groupâ€™s goal is to help any community that wants a radio station get one.
"Radio is an extremely diverse and well-established medium â€“ almost everyone has access to a radio," said Sassaman. "So we really believe that fighting for community radio stations is one of the best ways to make sure that all of us can participate in our democracy, can really engage with each other to shape it to really serve us."