WASHINGTON - Clear Channel Communications Inc., the nation's biggest radio broadcaster, is trying to beat its rap as the media conglomerate that lawmakers love to hate.
But it is an uphill battle.
Last week, on the eve of Senate hearings on media consolidation, Clear Channel Chairman Lowry Mays and a newly hired lobbyist made the rounds on Capitol Hill, arguing that the acquisition-minded company - which controls more than 1,200 radio stations, including three in Baltimore, and the nation's biggest concert business - has done what Congress intended when it lifted radio station ownership caps via the 1996 Telecommunications Act.
"Stations were going dark," said Andrew Levin, a former congressional aide who has been hired to make the radio giant's case. "Facilities were not being modernized. Local news was being curtailed. All that began to change with deregulation."
But those arguments appeared unlikely to ward off attempts to curtail the San Antonio-based company's practices.
Lawmakers are especially concerned by claims that Clear Channel has used its growing muscle to bully recording artists and homogenize playlists in a relentless quest for profits.
"They have a reputation problem," said Sen. Russell D. Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, who reintroduced a bill last week that would ban "anti-competitive" practices in the radio and concert industries. "There are a lot of concerns out there that their tactics are hard-nosed, and there are enough people saying that they're being anti-competitive that it's something they need to worry about."
The bill would keep a company from threatening to withhold radio airplay from an artist who didn't use its concert venues, for instance.
The focus on Clear Channel's growth has intensified as the Federal Communications Commission launched a review of its media-ownership rules, which restrict how large television and radio broadcasters can become. A proposed change would lift the national cap on television stations, similar to the 1996 rule changes that opened the door to Clear Channel's buying binge.
As Mays and Levin made their case, critics were working the same turf. Singer Don Henley, for example, told lawmakers and others that Clear Channel had become a poster child for deregulation gone awry.
"They wield too much power," said Henley, who testified at the Senate Commerce Committee hearing on behalf of for the Recording Artists Coalition. "Most artists are afraid to speak out because Clear Channel owns so many radio stations, but it's got to stop. ... They just target certain audiences. It's harder and harder for young emerging artist to get played."
If the airwaves are homogenized, Levin said, "we believe that much of the fault lies with the recording industry. ... Record labels just don't take the necessary financial risks these days in signing new artists. They sign new artists, and if something doesn't test well, they'll just dispose of them."
FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell surprised many recently by saying he shares concerns about radio industry consolidation, even as the commission considers more relaxed rules governing television ownership.
"We don't have a tin ear for" this kind of complaint, Powell said. "I am troubled by the way our rules work, particularly in smaller markets."
Edmund Sanders and Jeff Leeds are reporters for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.