Mixed Signals at Clear Channel
November 3, 2003
By Jeff Leeds, Los Angeles Times
The staid Texas family that runs radio giant Clear Channel Communications Inc. has tried in recent months to send a clear signal that it won't put up with raunchy antics.
Last year, the company ordered its rock programmers to pull pictures of skimpily dressed women from station Web sites that target young male listeners. Before that, the Mays family forced aside the chief of Clear Channel's radio division, a onetime shock jock known for sexually explicit broadcasts and stunts.
But a lawsuit filed last week in Los Angeles County Superior Court alleges that the company hasn't reined in some male executives' off-air behavior.
The complaint accuses Clear Channel Communications' radio syndication unit of violating anti-discrimination and whistle blower-protection laws by terminating a senior executive who objected to alleged "hostile treatment" toward women, including the spread of a sexually explicit e-mail.
The lawsuit contends that Karen Childress, former senior vice president of Premiere Radio Networks, repeatedly complained about sexual harassment at the company, including misconduct by top programmers. She alleges that she was fired last year shortly after objecting to an offensive e-mail.
Clear Channel, the nation's biggest radio conglomerate with control of about 1,200 stations, said: "We have not had an opportunity to review the lawsuit. However, we take all claims of this nature very seriously."
The case represents at least the third time in 22 months that former employees have filed court papers alleging sexual harassment at Clear Channel's radio operations.
In one case last year, the company paid a settlement to Brian Rublein, a veteran radio news director who said he was fired from a Clear Channel station in Louisville, Ky., partly in retaliation for reporting alleged harassment of a male employee by a senior male manager.
In another case, the company paid to settle a complaint filed by former Salt Lake City morning show personality Dawn College, who said she was frequently subjected to pornographic e-mails sent by senior executives. Terms of the settlements were not disclosed.
Clear Channel spokeswoman Lisa Dollinger declined to discuss details of the cases, citing employee confidentiality. But she did say "neither of these situations proved to have any legitimate sexual harassment elements."
The lawsuit filed last week seeks more than $10 million in damages. It alleges that Clear Channel's Premiere unit, which syndicates such on-air talent as Rush Limbaugh and Jim Rome, and Premiere chief Kraig Kitchin violated state laws prohibiting retaliation against employees who oppose illegal conduct.
Childress contends that last October she received an e-mail depicting nude breasts and the message: "Good luck to you! You have been tagged by the Great Jugs!" According to the lawsuit, the e-mail had been sent by a senior Clear Channel executive to his direct subordinates through a group e-mail.
Childress said she complained to Kitchin about the e-mail but said the company took no action. Instead, she alleges, she was fired three weeks later.
She contends the incident followed numerous other times during her six-year tenure at the company when she objected to "offensive" acts. In the lawsuit, Childress said she had voiced complaints that John Hogan, the radio division's chief executive, promoted women who slept with other male executives, including his predecessor, Randy Michaels.
The lawsuit said Childress also complained that male executives solicited prostitutes while purportedly on company business. An attorney for Childress said she has "firsthand" knowledge of such alleged incidents.
Clear Channel said the executives would not comment.
The most recent allegations come as the company has tried to bolster profit and pay down debt following the multibillion-dollar acquisition spree that transformed the family-run San Antonio company into a broadcasting and live entertainment empire.
In particular, industry veterans say the Texas giant's ranks are still flavored with the free-wheeling culture of Jacor Communications, the Cincinnati firm that had risen from near-bankruptcy to become a national power by the time Clear Channel purchased it in 1998 for $3.4 billion.
Tapped to run the combined radio division was Jacor chief and industry veteran Michaels, a onetime shock jock with a taste for flamboyant public appearances and station stunts.
Jacor came under national censure in the early 1990s after Florida disc jockey Liz Richards sued the company and Michaels, alleging sexual harassment. In an interview on ABC's "20/20," Richards said male co-workers at her station frequently directed unwanted sexual comments at her, and that Michaels sometimes walked the halls of the station with a flexible rubber penis tied around his neck. Jacor settled the case and terms were not disclosed.
"If you're the sort of person who's uncomfortable with a fraternity house and the silly stunts, you probably wouldn't have been comfortable in their corporate culture," said Robert Unmacht, former publisher and editor of radio trade magazine M Street Journal, who sold his firm to Clear Channel several years ago.
At Clear Channel, Michaels installed a management team drawn from Jacor's ranks and presided over the company's emergence as the most dominant force on the airwaves. But he clashed frequently with record label executives, and sources say Clear Channel's corporate management began to view his style as a liability.
The Mays family ousted Michaels in an abrupt shake-up last year, but industry experts say much of Jacor's ethos still runs thick.
"The Mays are conservative people," said Ron Rodrigues, a former editor of Radio & Records magazine. "I still know there are a lot of guys in the programming ranks who still see the Mays as not really being part of their culture, which is still a pretty fraternal group of guys."
Rodrigues, who works for a satellite radio company that competes with a firm in which Clear Channel is an investor, added: "There is definitely a sense of brotherhood and a sense of the wild and crazy."