Greed and Power: the Spirit of Radio?

PLEASE NOTE: This article has been archived. It first appeared on ProRec.com in June 2001, contributed by then Editor Bill Park. We will not be making any updates to the article. Please visit the home page for our latest content. Thank you!

Outside of the I. C. Light Amphitheater, a multipurpose venue on the banks of the Monongahela River in Pittsburgh, a small group of stagehands is walking in little circles.

Right now.

I just came from there, where I was walking in little circles in support of these stagehands. Carrying a sign. Shouting slogans. Giving the ‘Power To The People” fist in appreciation to all the passersby who demonstrated their support.

I believe in and support organized labor. The only chance that the average worker has of getting a fair shake from management and owners is ensconced in the power that a united work force brings to the table. This situation is one that hopefully will resolve itself to be a “Case-In-Point”.

The Tattoo Crew

We call the I. C. Light stagehands “The Tattoo Crew”. They are the same guys and gals who work many of the smaller venues in Pittsburgh, unloading trucks and humping ever-increasing amounts of band gear, PA, and lighting rigs. At this particular amphitheater they work under a huge tent in 90+-degree heat, often in 90+% humidity. Years ago I worked the same venue as a monitor engineer. In 105-degree heat I watched the sweat evaporate on my arms as soon as it poured out, leaving the salt from my body spread like glitter over my skin. Yep, it gets hot in that tent.

These workers unload trucks, climb scaffolding, haul up one-ton chain hoist motors, crawl around the lighting truss focusing instruments, and stacking speaker cabinets that weigh hundreds of pounds. Food breaks are caught on the fly, and usually consist of deli trays or cold pizza. The typical day starts at 8AM when the first trucks arrive and lasts until 2 or 3AM when the last truck leaves the loading dock. So what does each member of “The Tatto Crew” get for his or her 18-hour backbreaking day?

$95.

No pension. No health care. No future.

They have tried negotiating on their own with the employer, and got nowhere.

Last year these employees requested that the local stagehands union, IATSE Local #3, represent them in bargaining with their employer. IATSE Local #3 has been representing theatrical employees in the Pittsburgh area since 1887. An election was held, and the National Labor Relations Board recognized IATSE Local #3 as the legal bargaining agent. IATSE Local #3 has been representing these workers at the bargaining table. Talks broke down just before the beginning of the 2001 concert season. Main Event Services is the straw boss on the other side of the negotiation table, but everyone knows who is really pulling the strings.

Maintaining Radio Silence

Union strikes usually make national news, but you’ve never heard of this one. Why?

Remember my column called “Radio, Radio”? I spoke with some dismay about the possible future of the radio and music industries under corporate control? It is far worse than I imagined.

Last year Clear Channel bought AMFM and it’s 460 radio stations for 24 billion dollars. Clear Channel now owns about 1200 radio stations in the US. That would include 60% of the rock stations; including local Pittsburgh rock giant WDVE (102.5), as well as stations WWSW (94.5), WKST (96.1), WJJJ (104.7), and WXDX (105.9). Clear Channel owns 18 television stations, and has equity interests in 240 radio stations internationally. And they own 750,000 outdoor advertising displays, like billboards, transit panels, and advertising benches. They bill 20% of the total ad revenues in the radio industry. Clear Channel broadcasts to over 110 million listeners across the country, in 47 of the Top 50 markets, and in all ten of the Top Ten markets, and in all 50 states. They own radio trade magazines, an airplay monitoring system, syndicated programming, and a host of industry related businesses and services, including SFX. Clear Channel gobbled up concert production giant SFX like it was a nickel candy bar, at a price of 4.4 billion dollars.

SFX is the largest producer of live entertainment in the world. Now a subsidiary of Clear Channel, SFX owns concert production companies, including the local concert producer that handles the I. C. Light Amphitheater. They own 130 venues, including the I. C. Light Amphitheater, the Post Gazette Pavilion, and probably the big shed in your town. They own Broadway and touring Broadway shows, and sports and motor sports shows. SFX supplies strategic marketing sales and consulting services to pro and college teams, leagues, and venues. They own a talent management company that represents athletes and broadcasters.

Do you begin to see a pattern here?

It appears to me as though Clear Channel is taking over the entertainment industry. Once they gain total control, what kind of entertainment do you expect to see? Does Clear Channel have artistic and cultural growth in mind, or are they money-grubbing bottom-feeders, intent on profit grabbing at all levels, in spite of the long-term damage that might occur from such short-sighted actions?

The Results Speak for Themselves

Clear Channel uses its size as a power lever against artists and record labels. The threat is clear, because it has been carried out. No one wants to talk about it, because they are afraid. 1200 stations equal a lot of listeners. If an artist chooses to go with a promoter other than one owned by SFX, he runs the risk of having his recordings pulled from all Clear Channel stations. It’s hard to sell recordings when your music isn’t being played on the radio. Piss off Clear Channel and 110 million people won’t be hearing your music.

Clear Channel dumped their Arbitron contracts in 130 markets. Arbitron is the national service company that tells radio stations how they are doing in their market and how they stack up against their competition. Since Clear Channel owns the major stations in their markets, Clear Channel will tell you what to listen to, and you have no choice. They obviously don’t care what you have to tell Arbitron, or what Arbitron could tell them.

Clear Channel has sliced budgets and cut employees system-wide. On-air personalities have been dropped. Clear Channel has replaced them with taped broadcasts of DJs from other markets. It is a lot cheaper to pay a $6/hr board op than it is to keep a live on-air staff. The kicker? They pay little or no extra money to the DJs whose work is being re-broadcast. Imagine the possibilities: Pay a guy to broadcast in one market, tape and broadcast him in six, or twelve, or more markets, and pocket the difference. Local jocks are going away and without them at the microphones, local issues and community involvement diminish and disappear from the airwaves.

The list continues:

  • High-profile jocks like Jack Cole and John London tell horror stories of trying to collect their severance packages and owed salaries after being fired by Clear Channel.
  • WDVE in Pittsburgh has been the major sponsor for the city’s 4th of July fireworks event for many years. Clear Channel took over WDVE. WDVE cut its sponsorship for this event by 50%.
  • WNUA in Chicago sponsored the WNUA Cares For Kids Foundation, which raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for charity. Clear Channel took over, and shut it down.
  • The Indianapolis Indiana Clear Channel stations pulled out of a fundraising dinner for the Indiana Children’s Wish Fund.
  • For more than 20 years WHAS in Louisville Kentucky exclusively aired the Great Balloon Race, a part of the Kentucky Derby Festival. They paid a rights fee for this exclusivity. Now Clear Channel wants to be paid to air the event.
  • Last year the Attorney General’s Office of the State of Florida fined Clear Channel $80,000 for deceptive trade practices.
  • Alabama broadcasters have asked their state attorney general to investigate Clear Channel for deceptive practices.

“Tits Equal Hits”

A bay area Clear Channel station broadcast live oral sex. The same station regularly harasses a retarded man on their morning show, and subjected him to sexual humiliation at a private party sponsored by the station. When protesters gathered outside of the station to express concern over the behavior of the on air staff, two of those staff members came out and tried to provoke a violent confrontation, pushing and threatening to punch the demonstrators and verbally abusing them. The same crew placed a crank call pretending to be from a hospital, telling a woman that her daughter had been taken to the hospital, and accusing the woman of causing the daughters’ injuries. The woman filed suit.

There are no women in power at Clear Channel.

According to one employee, “Tits equals hits” was the advice given by a Clear Channel manager about the design of station web sites.

Clear Channel employees Bev Tilden and April Yerger have sexual harassment suits underway.

Liz Richards sued Randy Michaels, the Clear Channel executive who now runs the radio arm of the mega-corporation, for sexual harassment. This became a major story in 1992 that aired on ABC’s 20/20, prior to Michaels being hired by Clear Channel. The suit was settled out of court, so the truth of the accusations may never be known. But the statements made by the accusers on the ABC broadcast are disturbing at best. Statements that have Mr. Michaels roaming the halls with a dildo, accosting female employees are disgusting, and should not be considered to be acceptable behavior in the lowest employee on the corporate ladder. It’s totally abhorrent coming from a major executive. One wonders how this level of crudity could be rewarded, first by hiring and later by promotion.

How Low Can You Go?

WXTB morning jock Todd Clem (Bubba the Love Sponge) broadcast the killing of a boar from the station’s parking lot. Pictures of the event were posted on the WXTB web site. This was the fourth time in a year that an animal was killed or tortured on the air at a Clear Channel station. KEGL fed a rabbit to a snake on the air. Mike Gallagher of WWVA killed a steer on the air. Stephen Meade of KBPI killed a hen on the air.

Does any of this disturb you? It certainly bothers me. I understood that the FCC held the airwaves in sacred trust for the public, and that broadcasters had to meet certain standards and be responsible to the community. It appears to me that the airwaves have been sold to the highest bidder, and that bidder has the lowest sense of taste and style, an apparent arrested development complex when it comes to the opposite sex, a total distain for the communities that it purportedly serves, and the attitude that they are so big that there is nothing that anyone can do to stop them.

Apparently some of you feel the same as I do. In that critical 12 to 24 year old market, radio listening has dropped 15 per cent in the last seven years. That is an interesting number, because it has been almost six years since the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which opened the way for the corporate takeover of America’s airwaves. Is anyone getting the message? What is happening is not good for radio, however profitable it might be for Clear Channel.

Clear Channel is circling the wagons, and cutting off business dealings with outside vendors. They own as much of their supply chain as they can buy up, and dictate the terms to vendors whom they support but to whom they want no legal ‘ties’, like labor contractors. They are eyeing the recording industry, and I’m sure that it won’t be long before they have their own labels and their own artists, to whom they will pay salaries instead of concert fees and recording sales residuals. Again, Clear Channel will pocket the difference. I’m sure that the whole procedure will be handled with the same care and taste that Clear Channel has shown in their takeover and subsequent operation of their radio arm and their concert production arm.

Remember the Stagehands?

The stagehands are negotiating with a front organization representing this giant behemoth, Clear Channel. This organization cannot make a move without the okay of Clear Channel, so it is obvious to me that the stagehands are de facto Clear Channel employees, no matter who generates the paycheck. Clear Channel basically has all of the money in the world, and operates in an industry that produces billions of dollars each year. So why don’t they want to pay their workers a living wage? I don’t have the answer.

One thing is clear though. Vendors are afraid to honor the picket lines because of the power of Clear Channel. I saw trucks pull up, drivers and crews see the picket lines and abandon the trucks and join the picket line. Later, management personnel pulled the trucks into the venue and scab laborers unloaded and set up the gear.

These vendors are stuck in the middle, since they have contracts with the venue, but they work with the stagehands often and in many other venues. Do they honor the picket line and lose their contracts with the venue, or do they cross the picket line, keep their contracts, then have to deal with the stagehands at other venues and in this venue after the dispute is settled? The vendors’ crews may not be too sure of where their best interests lie, but there is no question about what a management-level vendor employee has to do. It is his job to supply the client with the required and contracted service. If he is not willing to do that, he can be fired and replaced, and there is no protection for him that I am aware of under current labor law.

I asked one of the vendors for his unbiased view of the situation. He expressed dismay at what is happening, and hope that the dispute can be settled quickly and amicably.

Most of the local bands that play this venue know most of the stagehands personally. They’ve all been working together for years. But the bands are in a similar position to the vendors. They have contracts to honor, and a very real chance of never being able to step on a Clear Channel stage again should they honor the picket line. It was interesting when members of one of the local bands cared enough about the stagehands to wear an “On Strike” T-shirt on stage, and spoke in support of the stagehands from the stage during the show. I hope that they don’t end up regretting that action. I applaud their choice to take a position and vocalize it.

It’s All About Money?

Lowry Mays paid himself 3.5 million in 1998, and exercised stock options worth an additional $23.2 million. But then, he’s the Chairman, CEO, and Director of Clear Channel. Since the company has posted earnings of almost a billion dollars more for the first quarter of 2001 over the same period in 2000, I doubt that Mr. Mays is still making a paltry $26.7 million. Just for fun I applied that out-dated income figure to the working time of a stagehand, based upon 40 shows a season with an 18 hour day per show, and it figures out to $37,083 an hour, or $667,500 a day. Which is a far cry from the $95 per day that the stagehand makes. (By the way, in 1998, the stagehands only made $75 a day.)

In standard workingman’s terms, a 40-hour week/year comes in at 2000 hours. On that basis Mr. Mays makes $13,350 per hour, or $106,800 for each 8-hour day. I’m sure that Mr. Mays works very hard for his money, and perhaps he deserves every penny. But if he gave up 16 hours, or $213,600 of income, to pay the stagehands, there wouldn’t be a strike. Ten stagehands could make $29.66 an hour for 18-hour days over 40 shows for that much money. (The typical show does not employ ten stagehands, and a typical stagehand does not make $29.66 an hour.) Ten people gainfully employed, while the CEO takes a short but much-needed break from the stress of corporate life. Maybe play with his grandchildren or go fishing.

Do I really want Mr. Mays to give up two days of his income? Not really. I’m just trying to make a point. There should be some balance here. A corporation that can pay its officers millions of dollars each year can find the money to pay its workers. Any CEO who has a College and Graduate School of Business named after him at Texas A&M should be able to figure it out.

Maybe the stagehands could get a grant from the Mays Family Foundation, the charity owned by the Mays family that has the majority of it’s assets in.. you guessed it… Clear Channel.

The Clear Channel First Quarter Report for 2001 shows income of 1.63 billion (that’s with a B, folks…) dollars, up from 782 million in the first quarter of last year. And that does not even cover concert season. It’s hard to see why they can’t find the money to pay their workers. But imagining NO income from concerts and flat earnings over the following three quarters, the number still comes to over six billion dollars of cash generated this year alone. Six Billion. In real life, we have the summer concert season and the fall/winter Christmas advertising blitz still to come, all of which will provide much better earnings per quarter than one sees in the first quarter of any year.

So, how does this affect you, the concert-goer? It doesn’t. Tickets aren’t any cheaper where the stagehands only make $95 a day. Clear Channel just pockets the difference between that and what they normally pay for labor. Does this affect Clear Channel? Not significantly. Yes, it would cost them a little more for labor than it does now. It would be the same amount that they normally pay for labor in other venues.

But Clear Channel would gain a work force that receives training in stagecraft. As part of the IATSE Local #3 Hiring Hall, their stagehands would work in all of the venues in the jurisdiction of the Local, and they would learn from the most experienced stage technicians in the city. Their stagehands would become a more valuable asset to Clear Channel. Where’s the down side?

Six billion dollars a year. This is a staggering figure. It is hard to imagine what mean, power-hungry individual would begrudge the hard-working bottom-of-the-ladder worker a decent living when the corporation generates so much money.


Many thanks to the kind folks who sat still for the interviews, provided background material, and offered suggestions that helped make this piece better. Any inaccuracies are my own. Special thanks to Eric Boehlert, who permitted me to quote freely from his article, “Radio’s Big Bully. Dirty tricks and crappy programming: Welcome to the world of Clear Channel, the biggest station owner in America” which was published in Salon. In many cases he said it better than I could have.

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