Clear Channel Localism Gets Stuck in the Mud

A few weekends back B93, the Clear Channel number two station in Grand Rapids staged their annual Birthday Bash at nearby Ionia – about a half hour outside of the city.

It’s a remarkable event because in this era of voice tracking and network radio, the country station still has enough juice to attract a throng.

The night before the event, Grand Rapids was hit by heavy rains. Some locals say it was five inches or more.

The next day – the day of the event – clearer skies prevailed and everything seemed right for this radio extravaganza.

Except, the locals at Clear Channel must have been listening to their own station that carried the wrong weather forecast.

The National Weather Service knew. They warned of flash floods, but I guess no one was home at Clear Channel Grand Rapids.

Ionia city officials also pleaded ignorance about the prospect for flooding as the Grand River eventually overflowed its banks – during the concert – putting concertgoers and their automobiles in a precarious situation.

One reader sent an email that said the station’s voice tracking was still promoting the event Saturday afternoon even as thousands of cars were increasingly under water and stuck in the mud.

Some locals say the National Weather Service – you know, the free weather bureau – had issued warnings as early as 5 am the day of the concert, but when so-called local stations do voice tracking they apparently think their stale weather forecasts will actually turn out to be what they say it will be.

Oh boy.

What a mess.

Fortunately, no one was killed or seriously injured.

But the spin doctors at Clear Channel who first bragged of 100,000 fans at the B93 Concert Bash quickly revised that number downward to 80,000.

Funny about that -- can you imagine a radio station changing an attendance figure so that it winds up being lower for a popular annual event?

Their current estimate has been downgraded again like a hurricane to a tropical storm – except now their official attendance figure is 60,000.

Maybe they can't count.

Maybe they don't want to count.

If you want to know why a spectacular event feels compelled to keep downgrading the attendance – kind of the opposite of what you’d expected – it’s because Clear Channel is in a heap of trouble.

Look, they did a local event and fans streamed out to participate and hear the country artists they love. Radio listeners sure love local -- just sayin'.

But what passes for local radio at an increasing number of Clear Channel stations -- B93 in this case -- didn’t bother to do basic things like safeguard the people in attendance.

B93 was still cramming cars into the designated parking areas with the river dangerously rising.


Well, even though the B93 Birthday Bash is free, Clear Channel charges $15 per car to park -- so they can make a profit for Lee and Bain to pay down their debt.

And when you consider that the artists are all appearing for free in return for – I presume – some airplay, that’s a nice day’s take.

It will turn out to be an expensive blunder for Clear Channel which wound up having to pay to tow the 1,033 cars stuck in the mud. That's estimated to be about $60 a car although Reed & Hoppes Towing and Equipment is as happy as a pig in -- oh, well -- never mind. They at least have a heart.

The towing company is apparently cutting the Evil Empire a break on that $60 per car price because the job is so big.

Clear Channel doesn't seem to heart its fans whose cars were stranded.

According to a local news account, "B93 is bearing the cost of moving the vehicles to the staging area, a half mile to one mile away. From that point on, the cars are the owners' responsibility".


I'm sure they'll keep that in mind if they ever get invited to a B93 concert again.

Or maybe they'll go online and get the weather forecast first.

And once the cars are towed -- 6 to 8 tow trucks working simultaneously -- they may need to be jumped, or fixed – and lawyers start suing – this may be a lesson that the locals will never forget.

Meanwhile, back at Cent Com in San Antonio, I don’t imagine Clear Channel Radio President John Slogan Hogan can be too happy. Things like this are not supposed to happen when you actually do a local radio event live.

Perhaps this best illustrates why consolidators really can’t tell right from wrong.

They believe that they can make a local station sound local by using technology (voice tracking) and outside of market personalities (syndication or network programming).

Many of their local minions don’t seem to have the brains God gave a goose. Otherwise, someone would have – well, called the National Weather Service --- just because that’s what locals do.

Sports teams do it.

Boy Scouts do it before picnics.

You don’t risk putting all those folks in harm’s way when all it takes is to make a phone call or check a website.

WOOD-TV’s online coverage included:

“Storm Team 8's Terri DeBoer is at the concert right now... She says the music at the concert has stopped and organizers are trying to determine whether or not to take down the stage. We have reports right now that everyone is being asked to leave the fairgrounds even though cars cannot leave the parking area. Several cars are at least partially underwater. We have reports of some cars being completely submerged”.

You get the sense that consolidated radio stations are beginning to operate like their bosses, the owners who never considered a Plan B in case their was a recession and they couldn’t generate enough cash to pay their debt service.

At the local level, it seems decisions are made these days under the assumption that sunny skies always prevail over Clear Channel.

We all know that's no longer true.

Clear Channel isn’t alone.

I get several real life accounts each week that local stations are carrying voice tracked inaccurate weather while their communities are being hit by tornadoes or severe weather -- all because of voice tracking.

I feel badly for the hard working B93 employees who were trying to make a popular live local event a hit again this year.

Instead it turned into a nightmare and could have been a disaster if lives were lost.

I’d expect Clear Channel to defend itself by saying even the city didn’t see it coming.

Maybe they listened to the weather on B93.

Often radio people complain about consolidation and feel helpless.

But the disastrous B93 Clear Channel Birthday Bash is an example of how to win the fight to take back local radio from national consolidators.

Just as the record labels have an organized approach to lobbying Congress for the repeal of radio’s performance tax exemption, citizens need only to raise a stink with their elected representatives on behalf of local radio.

To consolidators, "local radio" is a term they use like “the Patriot Act” to add emotional appeal to their defense of local radio performance tax exemption.

I’d scare the living hell out of politicians that near death weather experiences like this could happen in their districts – with an even more fatal result.

And why?

Because people need local radio and they're increasingly not getting it.

Not the repurposed, renamed and reinvented sham that Clear Channel is foisting on listeners, advertisers and politicians.

Listeners need the kind of local radio where someone at least can look out the window or get an accurate weather forecast on the air. Maybe call the local police.

Ladies and gentleman, start you letter writing campaigns – Clear Channel has handed you all you need to get an appointment with your Congressman.

I’ll say it again – radio has a purpose in our country when local people tend to the business of serving the public interest, convenience and necessity.

Since John Slogan Hogan is so good at coming up with slogans like “Less Is More”, radio people who want to take their industry back could use Clear Channel’s latest close call to inspire a slogan all their own.

How about “Flood Congress” with letters, calls, emails and in-person visits and warn them of what could happen next in a district that could be theirs.

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