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Published: Sunday, 11/18/2012 - Updated: 1 year ago

Clear Channel quietly pruning scores of staff

Owner of Toledo’s WSPD owes billions to Bain Capital

BY KRIS TURNER
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
Brian Wilson the controversial WSPD-AM 1370 talk-radio host was let go by WSPD last week. Brian Wilson the controversial WSPD-AM 1370 talk-radio host was let go by WSPD last week.
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Last week’s exit of controversial WSPD-AM 1370 talk-radio host Brian Wilson follows a yearlong pattern of dismissals, layoffs, and corporate maneuvering by Clear Channel Communications Inc. that has sent scores of people to the unemployment line.

Clear Channel, the largest radio station operator in the country, is partially owned by Bain Capital, which is the company founded and previously run by former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

Debt-ridden Clear Channel, headquartered in San Antonio, has been quietly pruning its corporate structure since late 2011.

On-air talent and behind-the-scenes employees have been shown the door or programming has been eliminated in markets that include Los Angeles, Boston, Tampa, San Diego, Madison, Wis., Springfield, Mo., Oklahoma City, Nashville, and, most recently, Toledo.

“Obviously they are trying to pay down their monster debt with Bain Capital,” said Tommy Butter, who was laid off from top-40 station WRVW-FM in Nashville in March. “Obviously, they are trying to fire their way to pay that debt down.”

Mr. Butter declined to give his legal last name to The Blade, and uses “Butter” as his radio name.

Since last year, Clear Channel hasn’t announced widespread layoffs or cuts, despite the steady stream of departures.

Bain Capital and Thomas H. Lee Partners, two private-equity firms, finalized their $26.7 billion purchase of Clear Channel in July, 2008, loading the company with debt. According to Clear Channel’s Nov. 2 filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the company had $16.4 billion in debt.

The company’s debt must be repaid throughout the decade and comes due as soon as 2014. The 2008 sale was the catalyst for thousands of layoffs as Clear Channel restructured.

Clear Channel has taken a different approach to letting its employees go in 2012, said Jerry Del Colliano, who closely follows Clear Channel’s movements in his blog, Inside Music Media. Mr. Del Colliano writes about radio companies and industry changes.

He previously was taken to court by Clear Channel in August, 2002, and the case was settled out of court. Mr. Del Colliano also is a former employee of Clear Channel.

Clear Channel Communications has its Toledo operations at 125 S. Superior St. Brian Wilson, drive-time host since 2005, was let go last week. Clear Channel Communications has its Toledo operations at 125 S. Superior St. Brian Wilson, drive-time host since 2005, was let go last week.
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Clear Channel has been strategically firing employees in small numbers so it doesn’t appear that the company is undergoing large-scale layoffs, he said, adding that it would have looked bad for Mr. Romney if his former company fired Clear Channel’s workers en masse.

“They’ve been nipping and tucking a lot since last November,” Mr. Del Colliano said. “There has been a substantial number of people [let go]. I can’t estimate it, [but] a handful of people every week for 52 weeks.

“It’s my belief that what they wanted to do was keep attention off of their Bain founder, Mitt Romney.”

It’s impossible to tell how many people Clear Channel has laid off or dismissed because that information is not included in its filings with the federal government. The Blade learned of many of the departures and programming cuts by reviewing news releases and media reports and conducting interviews with former employees of radio stations.

Representatives from Clear Channel did not respond to repeated phone calls placed by The Blade. An email seeking an interview also received no response.

A call placed to Bain Capital was returned Friday, but no comment was given to The Blade as of press time.

A woman who answered the phone at Mr. Wilson’s Virginia home said he wasn’t available and hung up on a Blade reporter. The libertarian talk-show host has not spoken to The Blade since leaving the station.

Mr. Wilson announced his departure via Facebook on Monday, posting this: “I am glad to have had the opportunity to preach the gospel of freedom and liberty to Northwest Ohio. Wish I had the chance on the air to say thank you and good-bye to my listeners. I will continue to make every effort to spread the message of free markets and liberty.”

Of the 16 radio stations in the Toledo area, WSPD ranked 11th for the 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. time slot, according to the most recent Arbitron ratings available. Mr. Wilson’s show was broadcast during this time, and the ratings track listeners 12 and older.

In the 25-to-54 age range, Mr. Wilson’s show also ranked 11th, bringing in about 10,200 listeners. Those listeners make up less than 1 percent of the market in the Toledo area.

In November, 2005, the year Mr. Wilson started at the station, WSPD ranked in third place among the Toledo radio stations in Arbitron’s ratings for the afternoon.

Mr. Wilson was a controversial figure during his tenure at WSPD.

He came under fire in January, 2011, for remarks made during his show that were considered insensitive to African-American students in the Toledo Public Schools.

While expressing his opinion that the school system doesn’t teach students to think or be entrepreneurs, Mr. Wilson said, “but certainly, teaching little monkeys to peel bananas and so on and them learning to do it correctly on cue does not mean that they’ve learned everything except a funny parlor trick.”

The comment led the school system, the local NAACP, and Mayor Mike Bell to demand an apology from Mr. Wilson, who said he was not referring to African-American students in his comment.

Mr. Wilson also used his blog to voice his opinion on the intelligence of people in the Toledo area.

In November, 2010, he wrote, “For the last 5 years, I have been contending with some of the most idiotic, aggressively ignorant, apathetic, delusional morons I have ever encountered in 45+ years of Talk radio ... This gaggle of people is concentrated in NW Ohio, specifically the ‘greater’ Toledo metropolitan area. Here you will find this stultifying concentration of blithering idiots on the planet. ...”

Mr. Wilson’s wife, Cassie Wilson, resigned from her post as Clear Channel Toledo director of news operations and news anchor at WSPD in May, 2009. Her resignation came shortly after the company announced it was replacing local midday news programming with newscasts from the firm’s Cincinnati talk-radio station, WLW-AM 700.

Nathan Reed, operations manager for WSPD, said he couldn’t comment on Mr. Wilson’s departure because he cited it as a personnel matter. He also wouldn’t comment on Clear Channel’s corporate practices.

Andy Stuart, WSPD’s vice president and regional market manager, also did not respond to requests for comment.

Several of Clear Channel’s employees who were let go or who left because of eliminated programming either declined to speak with The Blade or did not return calls or messages left seeking comment.

Those who did speak, however, told similar stories of being fired in brief meetings with little to no explanation.

Dan Stroud, former co-host of a morning show on KXXY-FM in Oklahoma City, spent 31 years at the station before he was laid off in March. He said he was one of six people let go.

“It was the briefest, most concise meeting I’ve ever been to in my life,” he said. “They never mentioned why it was happening and if I’d done anything wrong; they just said my job was being eliminated — no ‘thank you’ for 31-plus years at the same station doing a great job. No handshake, no good-bye.

“I got off the air, went to a meeting, was escorted out, and that was the last day I worked.”

Mr. Stroud, who has not found work since he was laid off, said he most likely was targeted because he was one of the longest-serving employees at the station, which had garnered him a higher salary than other workers.

Mr. Stroud said the general manager who laid him off read from a highlighted script — the two had known each other since college. The general manager wasn’t allowed to deviate from the script, he said.

“I just think they could have done it a lot better,” Mr. Stroud said.

Mike Creel, formerly with WNRQ-FM in Nashville, said Clear Channel employees are doing more with less and wear several hats. He performed a variety of jobs that included production, voice tracking, and directing programs.

“Most people at Clear Channel are doing at least four or five different jobs there,” said Mr. Creel, who was laid off in March.

Mr. Creel said he was let go the same day as a new manager took over the station. It was all about cutting “fat,” he said.

The radio industry is not without its challenges: There are widespread changes occurring with the advent of digital radio and the Internet. The industry will change, but there will be jobs created in digital areas, said Troy Hale, an academic specialist at Michigan State University’s college of communication arts and sciences.

“Web has gotten a lot bigger with stuff; there are a lot of opportunities out there that aren’t traditional media,” he said. “A lot of the stuff we are doing is leaning toward those things.

“A lot of the industry is changing and some of that tends to look negative to the normal broadcast industry.”

Mr. Del Colliano said Clear Channel’s future is on shaky ground as Bain Capital looks to turn the once-profitable business around, which could mean more cuts. Clear Channel most likely will be sold to another media company, but only time will tell how its employees fare, he said.

“There’s no doubt in my mind if they had fired several hundred people, they would have had headlines generated,” Mr. Del Colliano said.

Contact Kris Turner at: kturner@theblade.com or 419-724-6103.



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