Let Me Be Clear

The suits have been shuffling in and out of Zaca Lane for the last few months; anonymous, earnest-looking faces roaming the halls at Clear Channel Radio, trying to decide the key question.

Do they want to spend $20 million to buy four San Luis Obispo radio stations and another four stations in Santa Maria? In the immortal words of Dirty Harry, do they feel lucky?

We may know the answer sooner rather than later. Another anonymous group took over the conference room yesterday. The clock is ticking. The rumors are flying. By the end of summer, Clear Channel should be gone from San Luis Obispo.

It is an era in local radio that began back in 2000. Judging from public reaction at the time, you’d think the anti-Christ was coming to town. Instead, Clear Channel was a San Antonio-based conglomerate of more than 1200 radio stations, owned by right-wing Texas cronies of George W. Bush. They were controversial, pursuing profit, and seemed to represent everything that small town San Luis feared.

And perhaps most egregious of all, Clear Channel owned Rush Limbaugh.

Clear Channel snapped up KVEC from Frank Sheahan for around $900,000, eventually moving the county’s oldest radio station out of the funky house on Chorro Street down to the sterile confines of Zaca Lane. Three other local radio stations—KSTT, KSLY and New Rock 107—had already been purchased by the Texas millionaires. Once competitors, we were now family.

At the very first staff meeting, Clear Channel managers told KVEC employees not to worry. They weren’t going to make any changes. Promise. Then King Harris was told he was too folksy on the morning news so he left. Bill Benica jumped to another station just as he was about to be axed. Locally-produced shows on everything from travel to real estate were shoved to weekend Siberia to make room for syndicated (and conservative) Rush Limbaugh and Dr. Laura.

Only three station employees held on to their jobs. Those were uncertain times and the transition was far from seamless. The more liberal listeners hated Rush and Dr. Laura. Meanwhile, Clear Channel nationally became the source of a series of urban legends. Clear Channel had banned the Dixie Chicks from their stations (They didn’t). Clear Channel had banned the playing of “Imagine” by John Lennon after 9-11 (They didn’t).

Clear Channel wasn’t the only radio conglomerate in town. During this same time period, both Mapleton and American General Media expanded on the Central Coast, leaving public radio KCBX and KKJL as the only English-language stations in town not owned by one of the three companies. But it was Clear Channel who took the heat, I believe, because they were associated with more conservative programming.

Last fall, the company, controversial as ever, decided to sell off all their small market television and radio stations, so both the San Luis Obispo and Santa Maria clusters are on the block. I get constant emails from radio colleagues who think they know who the new owners will be, but the truth is that nobody knows anything at this point.

This much I know. Frank Sheahan gave me my original shot to do radio back in 1992 and I will always be indebted to Frank for that chance. But I am equally indebted to Clear Channel because they made it possible for me to stay in local radio.

Small market radio traditionally pays peanuts. The woman serving your food at Applebee’s, or the guy spinning tunes at the wedding reception, or the person delivering your pizza may just have a voice you’ve heard somewhere before. I was struggling back in 2000, having promised Charlotte that I would give up radio and find “a real job” once I hit my 10th anniversary. I didn’t want to stop, but passion wasn’t enough to pay the bills.

Then Clear Channel came along, offering me my dreams. Contract. Salary. Benefits. Vacation. State-of-the-art equipment. A management team who understood the business. Complete editorial freedom. Three years later, they added a fourth hour to my show. This is no “Damn Yankees” deal with the devil. I haven’t sold my soul. I just got lucky.

So the news that Clear Channel is leaving town seems bittersweet to me. All four local stations improved under their leadership. Stronger content. Stronger ratings. Stronger presence in the community. They were the broadcasting bridge into the new century.

We’ll know soon who the new owners will be. I’m not going to worry. I’m sure they won’t make any changes. Promise.

SLO City News (June, 2007)

Published by Dave Congalton

Writer. Radio Host. Screenwriter. Enjoying the Good Life on California's Central Coast.

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