Mark Mays is on a charm offensive. The presidentand chief operating officer of Clear Channel, the country's leading radio group and one of the 10 largest media companies in the US, insists it is not the corporate monster portrayed by its critics.
The company, which operates more than 1,200 radio stations in the US, has been accused of anti-competitive practices; inciting pro-war rallies; favouring rightwing "shock jocks"; reducing diversity; and blacklisting controversial songwriters.
Mr Mays denies the charges. "What's happened is people have come out and said that big media is bad," he says. "It goes back to the Enron situation where big business is bad and then big media is bad, and Clear Channel is one of the big media companies and therefore must be bad."
Last week, the group president told industry executives in London that the company had, in the words of one participant, "cleaned up its act in the past three months".
Interviewed after the European radio conference, organised by America's National Association of Broadcasters, Mr Mays says Clear Channel - capitalised at more than Dollars 24bn - has been the victim of a sophisticated myth machine. So much so, the company has set up a website "knowthefacts.clearchannel.com" to counter the allegations.
It aims to bury damaging stories on rival sites such as CorpWatch and Clear Channel Sucks, which accuse it of stifling competition and pursuing political agendas.
"There was a myth that we were a rightwing, pro-war company but that could not be further from the truth," says Mr Mays. He admits that a syndicated talk show host urged listeners to participate in rallies but claims there were fewer than 12 rallies supported by Clear Channel stations. "If we were really doing it we would have more than 12 among our 1,200 stations."
He also denies that Clear Channel plans its programming centrally, overriding local tastes, or that the company has been allowed to buy up too many stations. "In our stations, everything is local, all decisions are made locally. There are only 14 radio programmers at our San Antonio headquarters," he says." And on consolidation, the radio industry is one of the least consolidated parts of the media industry. Owning 1,200 stations sounds a lot but it's only 9 per cent of the radio stations in the country."
But it's true that recommended playlists are sent out to local stations and some stations share programming. While it claims to control only a small proportion of the country's stations, they are some of the richest, accounting for 20 per cent of industry revenues.
Mr Mays says the company is ready to expand further in radio and its other divisions, outdoor advertising and live entertainment.
After some Dollars 30bn of acquisitions, the company has augmented its radio dominance with almost 800,000 advertising billboards around the world, 135 entertainment venues - including London's Hammersmith Apollo and Dominion theatres - 37 local US TV stations and the SFX sports management business.
The group chairman last year raised the prospect of expanding in UK commercial radio following liberalisation of Britain's media ownership rules. But the group president predicts the group will be cautious given current valuations for companies such as Capital Radio. "If you look at public valuations of some of the radio companies, they are on higher multiples than in the US," he says. "It assumes faster growth than in North America, which I'm not sure is justified."
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