A Wonk's Eye for The Corporate Guys

Can Andy Levin teach Clear Channel to play nice in the media sandbox?
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Andy Levin is doing a makeover on Clear Channel. The Capitol Hill staffer and lobbyist is exiting a 22-year career in Washington to head the San Antonio conglomerate's legal-affairs team. Job One: forcing an attitude adjustment on a company that doubles as a poster child for the sins of Big Media.

That's not just among anti-consolidation activists. Clear Channel has raised the ire of lawmakers, too. Last summer, Sen. John McCain quipped that it had grown so large, the NAB was its "wholly owned subsidiary."

"The time has come to recognize that decisions made on the corporate side can't be made without considering the external impact on Congress, the FCC, and the public," Levin says, explaining his decision to revamp his own résumé, from lobbyist to strategist. "You can't always base business decisions on what's legal and what's not. You must view them from a public-policy standpoint. I plan to act as the filter from that side of the equation."

Clear Channel President Mark Mays agrees: "Bringing together our legal and government-affairs operations will allow us to do just that."

Levin's promotion is the better-late-than-never variety, says one Capitol Hill aide: "This company needs more advice in dealing with Washington."

Not that Clear Channel has played hard to get. Chairman Lowry Mays, Mark's father, is adept at the influence game, contributing mightily to the campaign coffers of President Bush and other Republicans. That largess may have won the company a White House friendly to deregulation, but it ignored its critics-and was blindsided by a wave of hostility and legal liabilities.

Clear Channel has grown exponentially since Congress lifted limits on national radio-ownership caps in 1996. It's now the largest billboard owner and radio-station operator in the U.S., with more than 2,000 stations. It owns a midsize TV-station group and is the largest manager of concert venues.

Size alone makes it a target of media-concentration foes. Yet Clear Channel has managed to taint its image all by itself. For instance, the company repeatedly incited policymakers and public opinion by aggressively pushing the FCC's local-ownership caps, cross-promoting its various brands, and tolerating shock jocks so raw they'd make Howard Stern blush.

So compelling was the outcry that Clear Channel was forced to rework acquisitions when the FCC balked at its bid to gobble up small and midsize markets by controlling six, seven, even eight stations.

The Justice Department is investigating charges that the company forced musicians to sign with its concert-promotion business to get airplay. Bad publicity also forced it to end the standard but unpopular practice of taking pay from independent promoters seeking airtime for their artists.

Those troubles prompted the Mays to hire Levin as a lobbyist in 2002. Since then, the former media-policy aide to House Democrat John Dingell has beefed up the Washington office with additional Capitol Hill aides. Clear Channel followed those moves by hiring PR firms in New York and Washington to polish its image.

Clear Channel's critics aren't likely to be assuaged by the newfound interest in public perception. But Levin insists a makeover is a necessity. "This company has grown tremendously. We're now an industry leader, and we have to take the responsibility that comes with it."

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