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Thursday, March 02, 2006

CBS Radio and ClearChannel - running scared

It's been a wild week in the world of radio. A quick recap and my take on things.

CBS Radio vs. Howard Stern

The first shocker this week was CBS Radio suing former employee Howard Stern. They claim that he did damage to them while he was still employed, deprived them of revenues, and various other harm due to his talking about Sirius in the 14 or 15 months between inking his deal with the satellite company and the end of his contract with Infinity/CBS. I think this one's going to fall flat as soon as it hits the courtroom. Stern's ratings, especially as 2005 came to a close, were sky-high. Aside from the markets that dropped his broadcast entirely, he gained listeners right up until the end. Advertising was booked solid on the program - over 20 minutes every hour (which was really annoying, as someone who only drove 30 minutes to work. Time it wrong and you get almost no content.). CBS Radio made tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars from that program.

The claim that Stern used CBS' airtime inappropriately is pure garbage and this will be exposed immediately upon the introduction of tapes of his broadcasts. Stern had many discussions with management, in particular Joel Hollander, about what he could and could not say on-air about Sirius. He worked inside those boundaries. When he stepped too far out of line, he was suspended from the air for a day while things were discussed. Two delay systems and "dump buttons" were in place, controlled by Tom Chiusano and "Dead Air Dave" to cut the audio when they felt he'd gone too far on a day to day basis. This whole setup was discussed ad nauseum on the KROC broadcast. If anyone is at fault for damaging CBS in this case, it's CBS management, including Tom Chiusano. They had the tools in place, and they were aware of the discussion topics. They could have cut Stern off, but consciously chose not to. They're toast. The countersuit should be fun. How bad is CBS' case? Jack Thompson is on Stern's side - and he's probably the last person on earth that would align himself with Howard (except maybe Jerry Falwell).

I'm obviously glossing over most of the actual legal points, and biased toward Stern. A more balanced synopsis is available from Reuters.

Bubba the Love Sponge vs. ClearChannel

This one isn't a legal battle - yet. No papers have been served, at least as far as has been made publically available. I'm not as familiar with this issue as I only started listening to Bubba in the last month or so, but it's shaping up well.

Bubba was fired by ClearChannel 2 years ago due to his FCC fines and their new corporate "standards". Fortunately for him, his contract remained in effect for the full term; he kept getting paid per his contract even though he wasn't on the air. Pretty sweet deal. But this also meant that Bubba couldn't say anything negative about ClearChannel while the contract was still valid. And he claims to have a lot of dirt on the company and its executives from his time with the company. Life-destroying stuff. Drugs, prostitution, adultery, you name it. If you've ever seen Dogma, think about the scene where Matt Damon goes into the boardroom at Mooby Headquarters and lays out everyones' sins. That's the level I'm expecting these "bombs" that Bubba has to drop will be at.

That contract term ended on March 1, and Bubba was ready to come out that day on the air with both barrels blazing. He spent the entire first hour of his show on Wednesday talking about what he was going to do. Little nuggets dropped on-air over time, with the occasional big bomb. He says he has names, dates, phone numbers, witnesses, proof of these things out the yin-yang.

But then, at 5 PM...nothing. He couldn't start dishing. He was put on hold by his agent, lawyers and "bosses." There are rumors that ClearChannel is threatening an injunction against him, to stop him from releasing this information. A leaked letter from ClearChannel claims that "the letter goes on to say that the disparagement clause 'contains no temporal limitation.'"

So, what's going on? For the moment, Bubba's keeping his mouth shut. In this regard, I think he's a little smarter than Howard. Howard spent an hour this morning talking about his lawsuit. He could dig himself a pretty bad hole there. Bubba's playing it close to the chest for now and treading very carefully - he's going to make sure that if and when he says anything, that he's completely clean.

If the disparagement clause doesn't have the time limitation on it, then Bubba can say whatever he wants. And even if it does have that limitation, he might be able to get it nullified in court. Either way, this has to have ClearChannel scared out of their minds, which would give some creedence to the injunction rumors. They must know at least some of the dirt he has on them. And they have to know it's true. If it weren't true, they wouldn't need an injunction. They could just let him spout off, then slap him with a slander suit. But they've made no moves in this direction. In fact, they're trying to shut him up. Which will make it that much harder to blow off the statements as a disgruntled former employee - they can't prove that it's false.

Or, Bubba could find a way to leak the information via an anonymous outlet and still nail ClearChannel and its executives to the wall. The dirt he has sounds like the stuff of legend. Stuff that could tear a company, and peoples' lives, down to the ground. And if he's not careful, his own as well.

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