My Week With the Man
“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.”
- Kurt Vonnegut, Mother Night
The story begins with a friend’s discovery that 91X, a commercial alt-rock station in San Diego, is accepting applications for a position as a correspondent for the Coachella festival. My friend, remembering that I’m a writer and a former college radio DJ, suggests that I apply. I wouldn’t mind going to Coachella, so I dash off an application and promptly forget about it.
A week later, I receive an email from Chris Cantore, a 91X DJ, explaining that I have been chosen as a finalist for the position. Cantone asks me to come to the station Monday morning and strongly suggests that I’ll be on the air. My mind races; I’m flattered to be remembered in a competition I’d already forgotten about, but mostly I’m concerned that the email is CC’ed to someone whose suffix is “clearchannel.com”.
Clear Channel owns more radio stations than any other company in America. They’re notorious among liberals for bullying, shady business dealings and connections with the Bush family. Should I show up? If so, what should I do?
My initial idea is to create a website with an innocuous name like "www.91Xiscool.com" and mention it on the air without saying what it’s about. Then when listeners go there, they’ll see something like this:
WELCOME TO 91X IS COOL!
91X is owned by Clear Channel, a huge company which also owns around 1200 other stations across the country.
Clear Channel also controls the rights to book concerts in most large venues in the U.S. It helped solidify these rights by using its control over radio to strengthen its control over concert venues – if an act performs at a venue not controlled by Clear Channel, Clear Channel might threaten to remove the act from its radio playlists. Since Clear Channel controls so many of America’s commercial radio stations, such a punishment would be severe.
Before the 1996 Telecommunications Act, it was illegal for any company to own more than 40 radio stations across the country. This kept any company from having too much control over what sort of information reached the public. Now, Clear Channel is affiliated with fourteen in San Diego alone.
Why should this matter? Well, for one thing, it’s not particularly healthy for music – if playlists are controlled not by individual stations but by a huge corporation, it’s just about impossible for an artist to break through in any meaningful way without that corporation’s thumbs-up. But, more importantly, radio stations disseminate information, not just music. A few months ago, Clear Channel struck a deal with FOX News to make that company the “primary national news service” for over 100 of Clear Channel’s news and talk stations. Yes, that FOX News, the Republican Party’s best propaganda weapon.
You may remember that in the months leading up to the war in Iraq, there were “Rallies For America” all over the country. These meetings were pep rallies for the war, designed to boost morale and show support for President Bush’s cause. They were widely portrayed as grassroots campaigns. In reality, they were top-down – many were sponsored by Clear Channel.
After September 11th, 2001, Clear Channel also recommended that their stations not play hundreds of songs due to their potential political implications.
Why is this happening? Well, Clear Channel’s chairman, Lowry Mays, and vice chairman, Tom Hicks, have been entangled in business with Bush for years. In fact, Hicks purchased the Texas Rangers baseball team from Bush in 1998.
What’s so scary about all this? First of all, the war in Iraq was and continues to be an illegal, immoral, unjust war, based on deceit. Clear Channel played an obvious and important role in helping the war come to pass.
Even if you don’t agree that the Iraq war was wrong, though, surely you must agree that it’s scary that a media conglomerate - upon which millions of Americans rely for news - was organizing fake grassroots rallies designed to generate support for a controversial war. Or that the same media conglomerate has close business ties to the president who spearheaded that war.
Or that the media conglomerate now owns an enormous number of radio stations. Diversity in media ownership is necessary so that one company does not control the way that all news is disseminated. It is unhealthy to allow one company to control over a thousand radio stations, in addition to dozens of TV stations and a huge number of billboards.
In short, Clear Channel is a company that is as vile as it is powerful. Boycott 91X and other Clear Channel stations!
After consulting with a number of San Diego activists and a lawyer, however, I find out that Clear Channel could sue me if I did this. They’d probably lose, but it wouldn’t matter – they have money and I don’t, and after years of court appearances, I’d be in debt up to my ears.
So I’m back to square one. The next plan I come up with is to go, then write an article about what it’s like inside a Clear Channel station.
Regrettably, that is only part of what this article is about. The rest of it is about a moral battle, one that will be familiar to you if you live in the United States and worry about the destructive effect some corporations are having upon economies and cultures here and all over the world. Wal-Mart opens a store in a small town; prices are kept low; small businesses close; good jobs are lost. Then you find yourself in that town, and you need to buy an item that, thanks to Wal-Mart, you can only buy at Wal-Mart. Do you spend your money there? If so, what do you say to yourself to justify it? Is it okay to go to a McDonald’s for breakfast when you’re traveling and there’s nothing else around? If so, on what grounds?
Wal-Marts, McDonalds, and Clear Channels now dominate American culture. If you live in America, you must participate in that culture in some instances, even if you fight against it in others. The ubiquity of these businesses forces us all to take some of what these corporations have to offer us, even if we hate them. This is actually a story about this apparent contradiction.
The 91X studios are in a glass-paneled building, loudly marked “Clear Channel,” in an office park in suburban San Diego. As I arrive at around 8:00, an employee opens the door for me and instructs me to have a seat in the plush waiting room, where a couple of vaguely punk rock-looking types – the competition - are already waiting absentmindedly. One wears a black T-shirt that reads “DEMOCRACY,” with each letter in the distinctive font of a different corporation – the M is the golden arches, while the D is in Disney cursive.
Another stares in disbelief at the wall behind me, where there is a display of plaques, each bearing the name of a San Diego radio station. “They own twelve stations?” she asks. They're affiliated with fourteen in San Diego, actually.
Within ten minutes, most of the other finalists have arrived. The girls anxiously chat or study notes on the Coachella bands, thinking our competition might include some sort of test; most of the guys stare off into space. Clear Channel employees pass us on their way up the stairs to work, all dressed in typical office clothes.
Soon Chris Cantore, the DJ, comes to greet us. Unlike his fellow employees, he’s dressed (very) casually, wearing a T-shirt, jeans, and a hat that reads “Will Surf For Beer.” His body language is even more casual – when he talks, he gestures with his head and limbs splaying loosely around his body, as if to convey how easygoing he is.
After a few minutes we’re led into the 91X studio, which is surprisingly small and simple. Two large “Rock Against Bush” posters are prominently displayed on the walls. We meet Chris’s morning co-host Ruggy, who looks like he’s in his mid-20s and has spiky, dyed-blond hair. Chris and Ruggy invite us to gather around a microphone and wait a few minutes while they prepare to tape a voice break in which we’ll introduce ourselves.
Chris and Ruggy are genuinely charming guys, and their on-air personalities are surprisingly unaffected – even when the mic is off, they aren’t so much interacting with us as they are trying to entertain us. They pepper us with the sorts of naughty jokes you’d expect from morning-show DJs, and relate stories that are, again, supposed to convey how easygoing and fun they are. When Chris learns that a couple of us have college radio backgrounds, he mentions that he got thrown out of his own college station for smoking dope in the studio. He also mentions that he has to pre-tape all his voice breaks because Clear Channel has him on “probation” for allowing a caller to curse on the air.
Soon Chris asks, “Are you ready to show some really fake enthusiasm?” and lets us know we’re about to go on the air. I’m the first contestant to approach the mic. I make a lame joke about Sammy Hagar, but otherwise my introduction goes uneventfully. I mention Dusted and my college radio background. I’ve promised myself that I’ll mention Clear Channel during a voice break, just to see what happens – I’ve never before heard anyone on 91X mention that they’re a Clear Channel station. But I decide that can wait.
I’m mildly shocked at what happens a few minutes later – Chris directly mentions Clear Channel on air, then refers to it again almost immediately when another contestant reveals that he works for a mortgage company: “Talk about an evil empire, you think this is bad, Ruggy?”
I don’t imagine I could come up with anything worse than that, and if I could it would be edited out, so I’m off the hook. I feel a little relieved and a little disappointed. But I’m feeling other things too. The thought of having my voice heard by so many people is giving me butterflies, and the orchestrated excitement of Chris and Ruggy's voice breaks - they're really good at their jobs - makes me feel more alert than I was when I arrived. For the first time, I’m looking around the room and hearing everyone introduce themselves and I’m thinking, I could win this thing.
If I won, that would make the story I’m writing that much better, but some part of me begins to feel like that’s not even my only goal anymore. It’s not about going to Coachella, either; as a correspondent, I’d have to interview bands, and that makes me nervous. As exciting as it is to be on Chris and Ruggy's show, being on the air would quickly become unpleasant - actually being on the air was the one thing I disliked about college radio. What I’m feeling is my natural competitive drive; I want others, particularly Chris and Ruggy, to know that I am the best. My original goal – to do something subversive – has moved to the back of my mind.
Now it’s time for the girls to introduce themselves. I’m not even competing against them – the station plans to hire one male correspondent and one female – but the claws have come out. One of the contestants is in a local band and she namedrops relentlessly; she is promptly added to my shitlist. Another, a pretty college student, has Chris’s “fake enthusiasm” thing down, “Woo-woo!”ing on command. When Chris asks her to introduce herself, she says, “That’s RII-iiight! I’m Ter-EE-sa!” She gets a place on the list, too.
After the introductions are over, so is Chris and Ruggy’s show, so we all head back to another room to do a segment that will be taped and broadcast the next day. It is indeed a quiz, with twenty questions about the Coachella bands. The three males and three females who have the highest scores will remain in the competition; the rest will be sent home. Chris reads the questions into the microphone while we contestants scrawl our answers with Sharpies.
We finish and Chris and Ruggy collect the tests, then leave the room to grade them. While I’m waiting I chat with the other contestants, who turn out to be really cool people, shitlist or no. At least two others write for music websites; one is an artist; another is a social worker.
Chris and Ruggy return with the tests and I’m a bit nervous, but I got eleven out of twenty, good enough to make it to the next round. Chris and Ruggy offer their condolences to the losers, promising to send them some T-shirts and CDs if they’ll email their addresses.
My next assignment is to write a review of Bo Bice’s next American Idol performance. Despite this, I leave the station in a good mood.
By the time I return to school at around 11:30, my spirits have dampened a bit. I’m thinking about the many political statements I witnessed at the station that were at odds with Clear Channel’s actions: the “DEMOCRACY” T-shirt, the “Rock Against Bush” posters, the “evil empire” comment.
I think of how I left the station and passed the office of Stacy Taylor, who hosts a liberal morning show on San Diego’s Air America affiliate. Clear Channel owns a few Air America stations too, even though Air America’s politics differ sharply from Clear Channel’s. But what’s a handful of “progressive” stations when you’re set to let FOX News run wild on over a hundred? And who cares, as long as the money goes to Clear Channel?
These declarations of dissent – Air America, the quips, the T-shirt, the posters – they’re tepid and depressing. If Lowry Mays heard about them, he’d probably laugh.
Chris refers to a company as an "evil empire," and yet he works for that empire, either because doing so doesn't really bother him or because it's by far the biggest game in town. If he refused to work for Clear Channel, he might not be able to work as a DJ at all.
I think about how I’ll write an article about how awful Clear Channel is. At least a few thousand people will read it. But in order to get the material for the article, I had to be part of a Clear Channel broadcast. I had to talk about this website, and how this website covers hip underground rock. On air, I played one of the twelve coolest people this crappy commercial alternative station could dig up to make itself look cool. At least a few thousand people probably listened to that. So, does Clear Channel gain or lose as a result of what I’ve done? Does it even matter?
I consider refusing to complete the American Idol assignment. It’s insulting, and if I just don’t turn in my review, that would be one less minute of airtime Clear Channel could fill with something of mine. But I think that the more I advance, the more material I’ll get for my story. And although some of my desire to win wore off after I left the station, I’m still interested in that, too.
So I tape American Idol the following night and quickly write a review. It’s funny, in an Animal House sort of way, and snappy – exactly the way 91X is. As I look over my review, I don’t know whether to be proud or ashamed of what I’ve done. I’ve made fun of three cast members for their appearance. I’ve speculated that two of them would each be terrible in bed. And I’ve found several creative ways to sneak in unnecessary dirty (but not too dirty) words. Nothing I’ve written has any relevance to anything that is good about music. But it is witty and pointlessly mean-spirited. For what I’d been asked to do, it’s perfect.
I tune in the next morning to hear my review read on the air. At the very end of the show, Chris and Ruggy read one sentence each from two of the other contestants’ reviews, and then one from mine. Then they play a pre-taped segment in which they claim that Ryan Seacrest is gay (“allegedly”). In terms of bad taste, this goes far beyond anything I’ve said in my review.
Later that day, Ruggy calls to inform me that I’ve been voted off the island – based on our reviews, they’ll keep the two other guys and I’ll stay home. Ruggy says that he really wanted me to be the correspondent, and that he really fought for me. That’s almost certainly untrue, but it’s nice of him to say, anyway. He also says to stay in touch and to contact him if I ever need help with my website. He’s banking on my not taking him up on that, but again, that’s nice of him to say. I thank him for the opportunity to be part of the contest and hang up.
I’m not surprised I got cut, but I am surprised that what got me was the review. After all, I’m a writer, and the sentences from the other contestants’ reviews that Chris and Ruggy read on their show weren’t even particularly well constructed. So what was it? Maybe Chris and Ruggy are a lot smarter than I’ve given them credit for, and they could tell my writing wasn’t genuine. Or maybe they’ve noticed that I sound like I’m half-asleep when I talk on the air, and they actually cut me for that reason. Or maybe the other guys’ writing was legitimately funnier and better than mine. Or maybe Chris and Ruggy just don’t like me. Whatever – I just wanted material for a story anyway, right? Right?
By Charlie Wilmoth