Consolidation foes seize on California fray

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While California's gubernatorial candidates decry the decision by two of the country's biggest radio broadcasters to refuse or limit ads related to the race, opponents of media consolidation have seized on the issue to bolster their cause.

Advertising Age reported exclusively last week that Viacom's Infinity Broadcasting, with 36 California stations, would not accept paid candidate ads for the Oct. 7 recall election. Clear Channel, the nation's biggest radio company with 71 California radio stations, said it would primarily take ads through its "political action network," which would require any candidate to buy at least 20 stations.

Infinity cited as its reason the large number of candidates, the last-minute nature of the campaign and the Federal Communications Commission's requirement that if it sells to one candidate, it must offer all 135 contenders equal access.

Those who oppose media consolidation, however, charged that the broadcasters' decision stems instead from concern that the candidates' ads would air at low rates. They said the issue is certain to come up when the Senate returns to Washington next month and votes on whether to overturn new FCC rules that allow greater media consolidation.

"I think Congress will wring their necks," predicted Mark Cooper, research director for the Consumer Federation of America, likening the situation to Cumulus Media's directive in July to its country music stations to pull Dixie Chicks' music because of anti-war comments made by lead singer Natalie Maines. As a result, Commerce Committee member John McCain, R-Ariz., and other senators gave Cumulus Media a public tongue-lashing.

wiggle room

Arnold Schwarzenegger's media buyer, Target Enterprises, has already asked the FCC about the broadcasters' stance. Sheri Sadler, media director for Target, Encino, Calif., called what the two broadcasters are doing "unconscionable."

"I think they are trying to wiggle and not doing what the spirit of the law intended, because their inventory is tight."

K.B. Forbes, communications director for Bill Simon's gubernatorial campaign, ripped the decision. He charged the argument that stations are worried about having to provide time for many candidates is a red herring, because only six or so of the candidates will have real ad money.

"These radio stations, who constantly articulate how they are defenders of the First Amendment, should open the airwaves. It appears that the radio stations are putting personal profits above healthy political discourse."

Arbitron reports the 16 Infinity and Clear Channel stations represent a 34.7% share of San Francisco listeners and the numbers are much higher in some other California markets. In Fresno, the two company's 13 stations have a 46.7% market share. The impact is even greater because of the time the region's drivers spend in their cars.

In an e-mail to one of the campaigns, a sales representative for Infinity said, "Infinity stations are not accepting first party campaign or candidate voiced political ads (as per corporate). We can take third party endorsements or soft money ads and [issue ads]."

George Nicholaw, VP-general manager of Infinity Broadcasting KNX-AM, Los Angeles, confirmed the company will limit its ads to issue ads. But he added that Infinity will provide news coverage of the candidates, including a one-minute profile of each of the candidates that will run at least once on all the company's California stations.

Clear Channel also cited the number of candidates and said that some of its stations also might refuse candidate ads but said it will try to offer a place on its "political network" for some spots. "It's a real challenge for us without displacing advertisers. ... But we have a responsibility to take it," said Michael Preacher, director of sales-California for Clear Channel Radio.

Media buyers and a spokesman for one of the candidates, though, suggested the real reason is the ad market is good and the unexpected election didn't allow stations time to either leave space for the ads or boost minimum rates as they usually do before an election.

Kathy Crawford, president of local broadcast for WPP Group's MindShare, speculated the companies are reluctant to sell ads on individual stations in that they would have to reveal to higher-paying advertisers the price paid by the candidates.

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