Clear Channel's fall from business grace remains epic in its proportions. In 10 years time the company has gone from dominating a flourishing radio industry to a corporation that now teeters on the brink. Lots of over-extended, debt-ridden media conglomerates are struggling through today's deep economic recession, but few face a future quite as perilous as the one staring back at the San Antonio radio giant. And yet Clear Channel's most famous employee, Rush Limbaugh, remains oblivious to it all.
Even for a pancaked industry like radio broadcasting, which has become somewhat numb to years' worth of mass layoffs triggered by hyper, corporate consolidation, and more recently by an over-the-cliff advertising recession, last week's HR wave of mutilation unleashed by industry giant Clear Channel Communications must have felt like a pile-on.
Drowning under massive debt and desperate to cut more costs, Clear Channel took an ax to its payroll -- again -- and hacked hundreds of radio pros out the door. Program directors, morning show hosts, production pros, news anchors -- all of them tossed over the side. A "bloodbath," one newspaper called it. (In Albany, New York, the entire on-air staff at a Clear Channel music station was sacked; same with a radio outpost in Exeter, New Hampshire)
The most recent blizzard of pink slips (one industry report pegged it at "nearly 1,000") came in the wake of a January purge, in which 1,850 Clear Channel employees were let go. So already this year the company has shed nearly 3,000 employees, or 12 percent of its workforce. Also, last week, Clear Channel's parent company announced it was suspending its matching contributions to employee 401(k) retirement programs.
Clear Channel, the conservative-friendly media behemoth with a soft spot for right-wing radio -- and which emerged earlier this decade as the poster child for everything that's wrong with runaway media consolidation (aka "The Evil Empire") -- is now hanging on for dear life. "It's a house of cards," radio watcher and Clear Channel expert Alec Foege recently told me, noting the company's crippling debt payments, which are due at a time when advertising revenues are vanishing. (Foege is author of 2008's Right of the Dial: The Rise of Clear Channel and the Fall of Commercial Radio.)
As The New York Times noted last week, "It is too soon to say who will be the biggest loser among media companies in this recession. But Clear Channel Communications is vying for the title."
Clear Channel's fall from business grace remains epic in its proportions. In 10 years time the company has gone from dominating a flourishing radio industry to a corporation that now teeters on the brink. (Clear Channel stock traded for $90 a share in 2000. When the radio company went private last year, pre-crash, the stock was already down in the $30s.) Lots of over-extended, debt-ridden media conglomerates are struggling through today's deep economic recession, but few face a future quite as perilous as the one staring back at the San Antonio radio giant.
And yet Clear Channel's most famous employee, Rush Limbaugh, remains oblivious to it all. I sometimes wonder what Limbaugh thinks when he reads about the not-so-slow-motion collapse of his radio employer while lounging in his 24,000-square-foot Florida estate or motoring in his $450,000 car to the airport to ride in his $54 million jet. Does Limbaugh feel bad? Does he feel a little guilty? And does he ever think about giving some of his riches back so that thousands of radio colleagues wouldn't have to be bounced to the curb?
And I wonder what those pink-slipped Clear Channel employees -- some of whom spent decades working for the company -- think about Limbaugh as they're ordered out the station door and onto "the beach." (That's radio-speak for unemployment.)
I wonder about Limbaugh and the thousands of his laid-off Clear Channel colleagues, because the dichotomy is striking: Last July, just months before the radio economy went into free-fall, Limbaugh's bosses at Clear Channel, who enjoy deep ties to Texas Republicans and who have been at the forefront of promoting right-wing radio, rewarded the turbo-talker with the biggest contract in terrestrial radio history. The contract included an eye-popping 40 percent raise over his already gargantuan pay, despite the fact it's doubtful any other radio competitors could have even matched Limbaugh's old pay scale.
The astronomical worth of Limbaugh's eight-year pact: $400 million. The amount of money Clear Channel execs have been trying to scrimp and save this year as they lay off thousands from the struggling company: $400 million. Ironic, don't you think?
The simple truth is that Limbaugh lives in the lap of Clear Channel-backed luxury, while Clear Channel employees are being axed with abandon. And those who are lucky enough to keep their jobs are told to do the work of three or four employees.
Would cutting back Limbaugh's salary completely solve Clear Channel's financial woes? No. But there is something bizarre about Clear Channel going out of its way to so dramatically overpay the host while the rest of the company suffers through the throes of a depression. It would be like the bankrupt Tribune Co. paying its Chicago Tribune editor millions annually while the newsroom got decimated by wave after wave of layoffs.
Context: Clear Channel now pays Limbaugh more than NBC pays late-night ratings king Jay Leno. Who thinks Limbaugh brings in more ad revenue for Clear Channel than Leno does for NBC? FYI, The Tonight Show generates approximately $200 million annually for NBC.
Is Limbaugh's program a huge success? Without question. Does the radio superstar deserve a big, fat contract? No doubt. Were Clear Channel executives smart to make sure they hung onto a proven AM superstar? Yes, but they wildly overspent, which raises all kinds of questions. I don't have the answers and I'm not suggesting any deep conspiracy. But this marriage of media and politics deserves a closer look.
At the time of his renewal last summer, Entertainment Weekly insisted, "It's probably worth it for Clear Channel to pay him an exorbitant sum of money ... than to risk losing him to another radio network when his current contract expires."
My guess is that was the spin coming out of corporate headquarters in San Antonio. But it's flat-out false. And that's where Limbaugh's monster contract and Clear Channel's employee purge collide: Why does Clear Channel, now desperately trying to stop the corporate bleeding, feel the need to support Limbaugh with a quasi-welfare state arrangement? Why is Clear Channel so anxious to pump tens of millions of dollars into the Republican's bank account each year?
Because here's the real oddity about Clear Channel's pact with Limbaugh: Last summer there was nobody else in a position to steal Limbaugh away. Clear Channel was basically bidding against itself and decided, in the end, to give Limbaugh a 40 percent raise, which included writing a $100 million signing bonus check to celebrate his contract extension. That right: A nine-figure signing bonus. At the time, it was a puzzler. Looking back at it today, the $100 million goodwill gesture, viewed against the backdrop of Clear Channel's doomsday woes, makes no business sense whatsoever. (That $100 million bonus could have saved maybe 1,000 Clear Channel jobs this year alone.)
It's true that in 2005, Sirius overpaid for the rights to add Howard Stern to its lineup. That's when Sirius and XM wrote lots of overly generous checks in an effort to shore up exclusive programming as a way to lure in subscribers. But last summer, when the Limbaugh deal was being inked, struggling satellite radio was in no position to lure Limbaugh away with a weighty contract.
In fact, just one day before Limbaugh's monstrous, nine-figure deal was announced, Money.com published an article about how when Stern's gigantic contract with Sirius satellite radio expired in 2010 he was likely going to have to take a huge pay cut, because neither the struggling Sirius nor its then-competitor, XM, could possibly afford to pay him so much money. They were "deeply in debt, cash-strapped and suffering an ominous sales slowdown," Money.com noted. (Sirius and XM have since merged.)
Not surprisingly, according to a Times article last summer about Limbaugh's new pact, a Clear Channel exec conceded that during the negotiations the possibility of Limbaugh jumping to satellite radio wasn't even discussed.
As for the other large traditional, terrestrial radio companies, such as Cumulus, Citadel, CBS, Emmis, and Radio One, lots of them are in as bad, if not worse, shape as Clear Channel, and some have flirted with bankruptcy. The industry is in meltdown mode, and it's just not plausible to think that anybody in the radio arena last year could have -- or would have -- stepped up and outspent Clear Channel for Limbaugh's services.
And yet Clear Channel, bidding against itself, rewarded Limbaugh with a $14 million-per-year pay raise for a package totaling $400 million -- the precise number the company's now desperately trying to chop off its books. And in order to achieve that savings, the company is willing to lay off thousands of employees and ransack the programming on radio stations across the country. But Limbaugh's purse remains untouchable.
Yes, Limbaugh's show brings in untold millions in advertising revenue. But a chunk of that goes to local stations that air Limbaugh -- stations that aren't necessarily owned by Clear Channel. And it seems self-evident that Limbaugh would have continued to bring in beefy ad revenue without a 40 percent pay raise. Also, keep in mind that, according to the Times article last year, Limbaugh himself controls 25 percent of the ad slots for each hour of his program, which represents ad dollars that never end up in Clear Channel's coffers. Limbaugh also earns extra by hawking products on the air. Again, that's money that goes into his pocket, not Clear Channel's.
Keep in mind that Clear Channel has a long history of playing politics with its talk radio. Around the time of the Iraq war in 2003, when Clear Channel was paying to produce and promote pro-war rallies hosted by Glenn Beck (which the company insisted were merely "pro-troops" rallies), several on-air personalities claimed they had been yanked off the air for voicing anti-war opinions; that they were warned point-blank by their Clear Channel bosses to tone down the anti-war rhetoric or face professional consequences. Clear Channel's CEO has also personally defended Limbaugh's ill-advised rants in the past.
In February 2004, Clear Channel pulled superstar talker Howard Stern off its stations after he veered to the hard anti-Bush left. Yet, now, Clear Channel rewards superstar talker Limbaugh as he veers to the hard anti-Obama right. Even though the content of Stern's show hadn't changed much in years, Clear Channel bosses in 2004 insisted Stern's show was suddenly "vulgar," and that's why it was taken off the air. Yet skeptics couldn't help but notice that as soon as Stern began bashing Bush, the shock jock got yanked from all Clear Channel stations.
Over the years, Clear Channel's management team has advertised its ineptitude in several kinds of lethal ways, like spending too much money to buy too many stations while gutting local programming. But in light of its current payroll crisis, I can't help but wonder if Clear Channel's affinity for right-wing talk radio, and its determination to overpay Limbaugh, isn't also doing real damage to the company's bottom line.