Solons see action as fallout from biz concentration

WASHINGTON — Radio company execs who banned the Dixie Chicks from their stations earlier this year got their own feathers ruffled Tuesday at a hearing on Capitol Hill.

Senators grilled Cumulus Media topper Lewis Dickey about his company’s decision to ban the group from all its country stations for a month after the group’s lead singer criticized President George W. Bush’s decision to wage war in Iraq.

The Dixie Chicks’ cause dominated the Senate Commerce Committee hearing as lawmaker after lawmaker referred to the controversy as a perfect example of the consequences of too much concentration in the radio biz.

“I was as offended as anyone by the statement of the Dixie Chicks, but to restrain their trade because they exercised their right of free speech is remarkable,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) lectured Dickey.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) pointed to Cumulus’ decision and a similar move by Cox Communications as a factor in attracting congressional scrutiny.

“You’ve motivated a lot of us to take a look at this consolidation issue,” Boxer told Dickey. “You’ve hurt yourself in terms of what you want.”

Dickey was there to testify against the FCC’s decision to change the way it defines local radio markets as part of its June 2 media ownership rules rewrite, making it slightly more difficult for corporate radio behemoths to buy stations in small markets.

“Contrary to much of the self-serving rhetoric, deregulation and the resulting consolidation of the radio industry have revitalized and perhaps saved an industry that I and many fellow Americans alike view as a national treasure,” Dickey said.

Simon Renshaw, the Dixie Chicks’ manager and a member of the Recording Artists’ Coalition’s board of directors, passionately dismissed such claims. He argued that greater concentration has given radio companies unprecedented power over artists and record labels and has led to bland, nationwide playlists that make it difficult for new artists to break into the industry.

“Even the perception of a radio network using power in this way,” he said, referring to the Dixie Chicks boycott, “clearly demonstrates the potential danger of a system of unchecked consolidation that ultimately undermines artistic freedom, cultural enlightenment and political dissonance.”

Dickey defended the company’s decision to ban the Dixie Chicks from its 50 country stations as one motivated by business interests, not politics. He also claimed Cumulus was simply responding to a groundswell of criticism from listeners in local areas, noting the company did not ban the group from stations with Top 40 programming because those listeners were not complaining

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