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Monday, Dec. 3, 2007 | I recently got hold of a copy of the book “Border Radio,” a rollicking history of the memorable characters who once ruled the airwaves before the days of Clear Channel. There was Dr. Brinkley the goat gland doctor who ran afoul of U.S. authorities for his impotence cure that was injected into the scrotum.
Fellow quack Norman Baker inspired himself by having sex in the studio while he was on the air. They all found a home on Mexican “border blasters,” stations, some with transmitters so powerful they could electrocute passing birds and turn on electric lights. It was Tijuana border blaster XERB that gave life to the voice of Wolfman Jack howling over his rock ‘n roll records. It was fun, wild, and unpredictable: good radio, in other words.
The unruly Mexican border blasters were tamed by corporate America, which used them — just like the goat gland doctor once did — to make money while avoiding U.S. law. Congress allows companies to operate no more than eight stations in a market as big as San Diego. But by transmitting some of the signals out of Mexico, Clear Channel Communications, the Texas-based radio giant, was able for a time to operate 12 stations in our fair city.
All these broadcasts originated in Clear Channel’s glass mothership in Kearny Mesa where I once got lost trying to find my way out. As I walked past the small, windowless cells where Chainsaw, Mikey, Hitman Haze, and the rest of the “talent” sit jabbering away at people stuck in traffic, I was reminded, quite frankly, of a jailhouse.
San Diego is the 17th biggest radio market in the country, with 45 stations earning an estimated total of $203.6 million in revenue last year. Clear Channel only has seven stations in San Diego these days but they still managed to rake in a combined $63.1 million — nearly a third of all local radio revenue, according to BIA Financial Network. Clear Channel owns the most profitable station in San Diego, KOGO-AM, which brought in an estimated $14.9 million last year selling mattresses, anti-freeze and the like because the gasbags on the conservative talk station do what Clear Channel and all media giants do best: generate outrage and then capitalize on it.
Recently, Clear Channel decided to drop liberal talk from the programming at KLSD-AM, which was the least profitable of the company’s San Diego stations, according to BIA, with estimated revenues of $2.5 million in 2006.
I found liberal talk even more boring than conservative blather, but hey, to each his own.
The station meant a lot its dedicated listeners, who protested the closure outside Clear Channel’s offices. They were particularly upset that local talker Stacy Taylor’s show had been silenced and replaced with yet another sports station featuring the aptly-named Lee “Hacksaw” Hamilton.
The part of this episode that I love is that the protests were encouraged by KLSD program director Cliff Albert, who also happens to be program director for Clear Channel’s conservative talk station KOGO. Albert has even started a blog, “Save Progressive Radio Talk,” where he keeps dropping tantalizing hints that Taylor will be back on the air at KOGO.
If I were a cynic, I would say it’s all a ploy to boost ratings and sell more mattresses and anti-freeze, but I’m sure Albert really has the loyal audience’s interests at heart.
Before that, Clear Channel’s KHTS 93.3 was embroiled in a payola scandal. In 2005, the company fired Diana Laird, the station’s program director, for taking a $3,325 plasma television from Sony BMG Music in exchange for playing three of the record company’s artists.
The scandal was uncovered by then-New York State Attorney General Elliot Spitzer and received a lot of press coverage. No one, however, paid attention to the music that was bribed onto our airwaves, which included Kelly Osbourne’s monstrosity of a debut, “Shut Up.” With a voice like geese farts, Osborne sings on the title track: “Blah blah, blah blah, blah blah, blah blah/That’s what/It sounds like you said to me/You nag and you brag and I gag!” So do I, Kelly. Sony BMG got a good deal on that one.
The music that comes out of my radio isn’t just mediocre, it’s aggressively mediocre. Oh sure, there are some bright spots where you find yourself drawn like KBZT’s “Swami Sound System,” which is playing in the background right now on my computer and it’s eclectic and wonderful. I don’t even like jazz, but 88.3 KSDS is clearly run by people who know what they are doing. I’m sure there are others, but they’re the exceptions. No matter where I turn I feel I am hearing the same predictable, meaningless filler. I’ve lived all over the country, but I’ve never heard more soulless, corporate radio.
I find some solace in KCRW out of Santa Monica, which I listen to through the static because it plays things I haven’t heard before, and a look at the Arbitron ratings shows I’m not alone in tuning out San Diego altogether. Without even trying, L.A.’s newsradio KNX 1070 actually shows up in the ratings here, because there’s nothing comparable here. It’s a desperate situation, all right. It can drive some to distraction like City Attorney Mike Aguirre, who believes that public broadcaster KPBS is so lousy that he actually launched an investigation of the station. It was a totally wrong-headed, idiotic and unconstitutional move, but I understand the frustration.
It must be said that it’s not all Clear Channel’s fault. The two top-rated stations in San Diego are Viacom’s KYXY Soft Rock 96.5, and Jefferson-Pilot’s smooth jazz on KIFM 98.1. I don’t know anybody who actually listens to these stations (at least no one who will admit it) unless they are trapped in the dentist’s chair. And you know dentists, they just can’t pass up an opportunity to torture further us with schmaltzmeisters like Wham!, Hall & Oates, and Journey.
Even worse, we do it to ourselves. Take a listen to the only locally owned and operated station, KPRI-FM. Despite its apparent freedom from corporate masters, the station can’t deliver on its promise of “Rock without Rules.” The rules are actually quite clear: safe and boring. If this is what passes for independence, then give me Clear Channel.
Seth Hettena, a San Diego-based freelance journalist and author, writes an occasional column “The Peanut Gallery” about local media and journalism. You can e-mail him at email@example.com with your complaints, thoughts or stories about San Diego reporters.