Show Me a Media Exec Who Loves Competition and I’ll Show You a Deer Who Loves Hunters

Things are getting desperate for the largest radio owner in the country. Clear Channel blew an enormous wad of cash right after the passage of the 1996 Telecom Act, which opened the floodgates for soon-to-be-giant to buy up radio stations left-and-right. Then Cheap Channel combined stations, firing staff, putting them onto automation and piping in programming and programming decisions from remote corporate headquarters.

And they made mad money at it… for a while.

But now the public is increasingly fed up with being bombarded by commercials squeezed in between the same damn songs over and over again, presented by voice-tracked computers with no local connection. Now listeners with a little bit of disposable income have the opportunity to listen to radio on-line, get satellite radio, or just ditch radio altogether to listen to iPods and MP3 players.

That makes Mark Mays, CEO of Clear Channel very very sad.

So what does Mr. Mays do?

Why, he demands that the US Government to step in and dole out protection from competition for him and his broadcast-radio ilk, and dump regulations onto those rogue satellite broadcasters.

Yep, that’s the American capitalist way: tout the benefits of the “free market” until it erodes your competitive advantage.

Apparently, Mays told the anti-regulatory Freedom and Progress Foundation that,

“If XM is allowed to have 150 channels in each market, it is a competitive disadvantage for us to have only eight.”

Nevermind that “each market” is actually the whole friggin country, in which I believe Mr. Mays’ company currently owns twelve hundred “channels.” It sure looks like Mays’ has a lot more apples than XM has oranges, but that doesn’t stop from him demanding that companies like his be able to own as many as twelve stations in the largest markets.

Of course, there really aren’t so many companies like his in the country. There’s fewer than ten who could pull off such a deal as being able to actually muster the funds to buy another four stations in a market like Los Angeles, where each station would probably cost tens of millions of dollars.

So, really, there isn’t much competition in the broadcast radio market to begin with. What’s Mays is really saying is now that Clear Channel has pillaged broadcast radio and come close to bleeding it dry of value, he wants the rights to suck the last bit of meat off the bones.

And why is Clear Channel losing listeners to satellite in the first place? I don’t think it’s because XM and Sirius have more channels. It’s because (at least right now) many of those channels don’t carpetbomb you with 20 minutes of advertising an hour, and the same set of songs every 360 minutes or so.

On top of begging for the last remaining scraps of broadcast radio, Mays also thinks that satellite providers should be prevented from offering locally oriented programming, like weather and traffic. He does this backhandedly, by supporting legislation that would instruct regulators to look into the issue. Which is like the NRA asking for Congress to look into gun laws — you know what they want, even if they’re not being utterly explicit.

Frankly, if the only thing keeping listeners tuned into their local Cheap Channel station is the traffic and weather updates, then Mays and his cronies deserve the listener exodus.

Going back about 15 years ago, when I took radio production in college, my professor, who was also the advisor to my college station, used to tell us that a radio broadcast license was a license to print money. He also told us that if we wanted to make real money in radio, we’d get into ad sales, not DJing or production.

That was seven years before the Telecom Act, when Clear Channel would make those late 80s days of print money look like small change. But I can’t cry for them now that the well runs a little more dry.

That license to print money came free from the FCC, whereas Sirius and XM at least bought their licenses at auction, and still haven’t even turned a profit.

But those are inconvenient facts for Mark Mays and Cheap Channel. They’re gluttons who’ll rail against socialized medical care and healthy diets until they need triple-bypass surgery to stay alive.

If only Cheap Channel were that close to death. But when it is, I’ll be glad to pull the plug.

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