Skip to Content View Previous Reports



No area of the media landscape has been untouched by consolidation. With radio, this movement creates an interesting dichotomy. The general public probably understands that network anchors like Dan Rather or Katie Couric do not work at their local television station even though they appear on the same channel as their local anchors. There is even a certain cachet to clearly demonstrating the difference: local television stations market the fact that they are part of the ABC or CBS News family.

Radio, on the other hand, is moving away from such distinctions. Technology has made it ever easier to seamlessly splice pieces of local information into a generic broadcast to give the appearance that the programming is local. Radio listeners may not give a second thought to what company might stand behind their local radio station. They may be aware of the presence of corporations like Clear Channel or Infinity Broadcasting, but they might not understand how large their presence is. More than that, they might not know what impact the ownership question has on what they listen to.

But the level of consolidation in radio exceeds that of most media, particularly in the case of one company, Clear Channel. Because it has become so large, it is viewed, particularly by critics, as a kind of canary in the mineshaft, a harbinger of some of the possible consequences of consolidation. The phenomenon has even taken on a name, “Clear Channelization,” so dubbed by Thomas C. Green, a writer for the UK-based IT News Service The Register.1

Understanding the current ownership structure first requires some examination of the level of consolidation that has occurred.

If we look at the top three owners over the last several years we see that, in 1999, Clear Channel, Cumulus Broadcasting and Citadel Communication Corporation, combined, owned fewer than 1,000 stations. Today they own just over 1,600, with Clear Channel owning 1,207 of them. Much of this gain can be attributed to a change in the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which eliminated the rule that capped the number of stations one company could own at 40. That change allowed Clear Channel to acquire the 460-station AMFM Inc. in June 2000. Before that change, Clear Channel owned a mere 43 stations. As of 2002, 21 companies own more than 40 stations each.2

Number of Stations Owned by Top Broadcasting Companies

Owner All Stations News Other
Clear Channel Communications 1207 135 1072
Cumulus Broadcasting Inc 268 23 245
Citadel Communications Corporation 218 24 194
Infinity Broadcasting 184 20 164
American Family Association Inc 107 0 107
Entercom 105 13 92
Salem Communications Corporation 91 6 85
Regent Communications Inc 76 8 68
Cox Broadcasting 76 7 69
ABC Radio Inc 74 5 69
Saga Communications Inc 71 9 62
Educational Media Foundation 64 0 64
Radio One Inc 63 4 59
Univision Communications Inc 61 0 61
NextMedia Group 58 6 52
Entravision Holdings LLC 57 0 57
Waitt Broadcasting Inc 54 3 51
Triad Broadcasting Company 46 6 40
Forever Broadcasting Inc 43 5 38
Beasley Broadcast Group 42 4 38

Source: BIAfn

Combined, the top 20 companies own more than 20 percent of all domestic radio stations. The top-five companies own more than 14 percent of the total number of stations. Clear Channel has stations in 191 of the 289 Arbitron-rated markets. The second-largest organization, Cumulus, only operates in 55. Compare this with the fifth-largest owner, the American Family Association, which owns the Christian radio station group American Family Radio in 36 markets.

Number of Markets Reached by Top Companies, 2002
Design Your Own Chart
BIAfn Media Access Pro, unpublished data
*Top-five companies that own news format stations

While all this represents significant consolidation, Clear Channel stands apart. It is the only company, for instance, to operate at least one station in each of the 25 top radio markets. ABC Radio and Infinity (Viacom) are the next two companies with the greatest reach, but they each have stations only in the top 10 markets.3 According to the Future of Music Coalition report, Clear Channel enjoyed a nationwide share of 27 percent share of radio listeners (103.4 million) in winter of 2002. By means of comparison, this would mean that Clear Channel reached roughly one-third of the estimated population of the United States. Only Infinity (Viacom) came close to that with a 15 percent share (59.1 million listeners). From there, percentages drop down below 4 percent share (15.3 million listeners) to include such companies as Cox Communications (3.5 percent share), Entercom (3.4 percent share), ABC Radio (3.3 percent share) and Citadel (2.7 percent share).4

Change in Stations Owned by the Top Companies*
1999 – 2003
Design Your Own Chart
BIAfn Media Access Pro, unpublished data
*Top-five companies that own news format stations

What difference does this make? Critics like the Future of Music Coalition contend it is creating homogenization of culture, making it difficult for new artists and real innovation in music. Groups on the other side, such as the National Association of Broadcasters, contend the superior resources and expanded formatting of modern radio companies has meant more music choices for listeners, not fewer. Those issues are beyond the scope of this report, which is focused on journalism. But one aspect of so-called Clear Channelization, and voice-tracking, the technology of producing the content for radio stations from far away, does have to do with journalism. What is the impact on local cities if there are fewer people, and certainly fewer people working as journalists, at the local radio station?

Critics are quick to point to an incident that occurred in January of 2002. Of the 80 commercial radio stations in the state of North Dakota at that time, 23 of them were owned by Clear Channel. In the city of Minot, N.D., Clear Channel owned all six of the city’s commercial radio stations, leaving only a public radio station and a Christian station as alternatives. The situation proved to be critical when a train derailment caused a cloud of anhydrous ammonia that killed one man and sent hundreds to the hospital.5

What happened next has been debated. The police said that they were unable to contact anyone at KCJB, a Clear Channel station that was the designated emergency broadcast station. The station was utilizing voice-tracking technology. Voice-tracking allows a single host to record programming, which can then be distributed in multiple cities. The content is often punctuated with details specifically related to the listening area to give the illusion that the radio host is local. Clear Channel has said that there were staff members on the station’s premises and that the police simply did not know how to utilize the system. It is unclear who was at fault ultimately, but clearly something went wrong.

What other impact has there been on news? According to a Future of Music Coalition analysis of BIAfn data, four companies-Viacom, Clear Channel, ABC Radio and Entercom-now command 67 percent of news radio listeners, some 38 million people, as of May 16, 2003.6

The National Association of Broadcasters has said there has been no negative impact from this consolidation. The NAB said that a survey of listeners had found that Americans were happy with their radio news and that there were a greater number of formats and availability for listeners than ever before. A December 2002 survey by The Mellman Group for NAB reported that 78 percent of Americans felt that their radio stations played an important role in providing news and information to their communities (37 percent very important and 41 percent somewhat important). In addition, 66 percent said that they were satisfied with the job their local stations were doing in providing them news, information and entertainment programming (37 percent very satisfied and 29 percent somewhat satisfied).7

The question of consolidation impact is not easily resolved and is more complex than individuals on either side of the debate might want the public to believe. Trying to get an objective, data-centered perspective on the situation is further complicated by the fact that consolidation has required the readjustment of many of the academic instruments that sought to keep track of the state of news on the radio. For example, while it is true that the number of people in newsrooms is growing, it is also true that those newsrooms are serving multiple news stations and that a good portion of those stations are not even in the same market as the newsroom. By extension, data from the RTNDA suggest that the average radio station is locally producing 44 minutes of news per weekday. But, again, this is now a measurement of what is being produced by news departments, not individual stations. Because these departments are now serving a greater number of stations, it might be extrapolated that there is actually, overall, less news being produced.8 The necessary change in the survey methodology limits any ability to make a precise determination about this.

But we do know some things of importance. Technologies like voice-tracking and the FCC’s elimination of requirements that stations produce news and public affairs programming are transforming what used to be a hyper-local medium that offered school lunch menus into a network of hubs, run by central locations where programming decisions are made. In spite of this, statistics on radio listenership and levels of audience satisfaction do not demonstrate either a remarkable level of decline or a level of dissatisfaction out of line with other media sources. Is it that the news being produced under these new situations is not significantly different than the news being produced before? Or is this an impact of the habitual nature of radio usage?

Radio is virtually everywhere — in the gym, at the grocery store, in the car. Are people expressing satisfaction because they believe they are getting the information they need to participate in their community? Or is it that they are satisfied with the news they are getting on their radio station of choice because they tune in for the music and the news content is secondary? When responding to surveys do listeners remember hearing news once an hour and feel that the mere presence (or even lack of presence) of news on their radio station is satisfactory and disregard the content of those reports?

These questions seem to beg increased attention as those who concern themselves with studying radio news reorient their work in this age of massive consolidation.

Click here to view footnotes for this section.