Clear Channel Communications, the Texas-based media colossus that’s fomenting pro-war rallies and submarining airplay for anti-war artists, has quietly become a brash and hungry player in New York politics. With the likes of GOP power broker Al D’Amato and Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf on the tab, the $8 billion conglomerate is chasing city deals, from a new concert hall on Randalls Island to a franchise on all sidewalk advertising.
If you get in the back seat of a cab, you may already be faced with Clear Channel’s televised commercials, or wind up riding underneath one of their taxi-top posters, all approved by the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission.
Or, if you enter a subway station, you’ll pass their billboards—soon to be changeable digital ads—on the way down the steps, awarded by the MTA.
If you catch a flight out of Newark Airport, it’s their ads that work on your subconscious while you wait, courtesy of the Port Authority.
If you’re taking a walk in Times Square, you’ll be surrounded by their towering, city-authorized, street signage, even while you’re buying a ticket to any of the five Broadway shows they produced.
If you’ve paid a fortune to see a concert at either of the two publicly owned amphitheaters in the area—Jones Beach or the PNC Arts Center in Holmdel, New Jersey—it was Clear Channel that sold you the ticket.
And if you turn on a radio in New York, it’s hard to miss their five stations (WHTZ, WKTU, WAXQ, WWPR, WLTW), which combine to make them number one in this market .
What’s good for business in cowboy country, however, could hurt them on old Broadway. Paul Krugman, the best reason to read the Times, revealed last week that Clear Channel is the sponsor, albeit indirectly, of the carefully synchronized pro-war rallies taking place all over Bush country. Their stations have sponsored at least 13 of these “Rally for America” events, including one in Atlanta that drew 25,000 people, with future “outpourings of support” scheduled for Tampa, Florida; Lubbock, Texas; and Dothan, Alabama. One of their radio superstars, Glenn Beck, joined by advertisers, has hosted another five. The company has tried to draw a flimsy line of distinction between itself and the rallies that its wholly-owned stations host, but anyone can see that’s just one more lie out of Texas about this war.
Times business reporters also reported that Clear Channel stations “stopped playing the Dixie Chicks after the group’s lead singer, Natalie Maines, told fans during a London concert, ‘We’re ashamed the president is from Texas.'” And when activist-singer Ani DiFranco recently appeared at a Clear Channel-sponsored concert in Newark, New Jersey, efforts were made to kill any anti-war protests. Amy Goodman, the prizewinning WBAI reporter who introduced DiFranco, told the Voice that “the security guards took anti-war leaflets out of my bag,” confiscating them from others as well, and that the operators “were constantly threatening to cut off the mic.”
The company claims that facility staff, not Clear Channel’s, muzzled the DiFranco show (the facility manager agrees), and that the stations that silenced the Chicks did so on their own. Clear Channel offered the same station-to-station explanation for its temporary ban, after 9-11, of 158 offensive songs, including “Walk Like an Egyptian” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Its top talk stars are Rush Limbaugh and Laura Schlessinger.
Leapfrogging from 43 stations to 1,220 since the passage of the deregulating Telecommunications Act of 1996, Clear Channel hired the congressional aide who drafted the act, and is represented by the former law firm of the head of the Justice Department’s antitrust division. Clear Channel’s vice chair, Tom Hicks, made George W. Bush a multimillionaire by buying the Texas Rangers from him, and chaired a state university board that steered most of its endowment to firms with Bush and GOP ties.
Clear Channel’s strongest local interest now is its attempt to win a contract with the Bloomberg administration for a concert facility at Randalls Island that its counsel, Peter Strauss, says will be for far less than the 19,500 seats permitted under the city’s bid process. The company successfully sued the city at the end of 2001 to block the award of the nine-acre amphitheater site, just off the Triborough Bridge, forcing a re-bid. Only the original winner—Quincunx LLC—and Clear Channel are seeking to build what would become the largest outdoor concert venue in the city.
The company retained Sheinkopf to represent it on the deal last fall, and he has lined up meetings with Manhattan Borough President Virginia Fields, Assemblyman Keith Wright, City Council Finance Committee chair David Weprin,, and Comptroller William Thompson. Fields and Thompson, whose 2001 campaign was managed by Sheinkopf, are members of the city’s Franchise and Concession Review Board, which will vote on the contract after the Parks Department picks a winner.
Usually a campaign consultant and usually associated with liberal Democrats like Mark Green, Sheinkopf has registered for only one other lobbying client. John Siegel, the Proskauer Rose partner who chaired Green’s campaign, also represents Clear Channel, spearheading the lawsuit that re-opened the bid. The company recently contributed $5,000 to Council Speaker Gifford Miller and Queens councilwoman Melinda Katz, who chairs the land use committee.
Accompanying Sheinkopf on at least one of his half-dozen lobbying meetings was Chris D’Amato, son of the former senator and his partner in Park Strategies LLC, a lobbying and public relations firm. Clear Channel attorney Strauss, who attended the same meeting with Comptroller Thompson, says that D’Amato said nothing during the meeting and attended it as an attorney, not a lobbyist. The D’Amato firm, which has represented Clear Channel and its predecessor, SFX, since the fall of 1999, has never registered as a lobbyist for either company.
Strauss says that D’Amato was retained “as a consultant weeks before” SFX submitted a bid to renew its Jones Beach amphitheater contract to State Parks Commissioner Bernadette Castro. It was able to win a 20-year extension, twice the length of the former deal. A Newsday investigation in 2001 revealed that SFX won the contract despite the fact that another major concert promoter, House of Blues, offered the state $3.6 million more in revenue. Strauss says that D’Amato “made no appearances” on behalf of the company with officials, though he said he did not know if the wheeler-dealer former senator from Island Park, near Jones Beach, ever made a phone call or whispered in a friendly Pataki ear.
The company also retains legendary lobbyist Sid Davidoff, who’s pushed Bloomberg deputy mayor Mark Shaw and Buildings Commissioner Patricia Lancaster on billboard regulations. Claudia Wagner represents it on the potentially multibillion-dollar street furniture franchise, which the Bloomberg administration is considering putting out to bid. That would seek to secure a city commission on all sidewalk advertising—on bus shelters, pay phones, rebuilt newsstands, pay toilets, information kiosks, etc.
Its most recent city deal was a memo of understanding with the city’s taxi commission allowing it to put advertising screens in cab backseats, a privilege granted to several competitors as well. While Clear Channel has so far installed only two monitors in cabs, it has rapidly become, with commission approval, the biggest taxi-top advertiser, acquiring rights to the roofs of 2,668 cabs.
In December, the company also won a three-year extension of its contract with the MTA for the billboard space on subway entrances. It got the extension, according to MTA spokesman Tom Kelly, because it proposed converting the outdoor space to digital panels, which would permit additional advertisers on screens at high-traffic stations, increasing the commission paid to the MTA. Authority officials did not answer questions about whether D’Amato, whose lobbying activities at the MTA are notorious, had anything to do with the lucrative, no-bid contract.
Research assistance: Cathy Bussewitz, Alexa Hinton, Felicia Mello, Solana Pyne,E.B. Solomont, and Steven I. Weiss