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10/27/03 Tough Questions Strengthen Radio

Since when is asking difficult questions or challenging the status quo a bad thing? It amazes me that, in the field of Radio broadcasting, we cannot tolerate true journalism when it comes to the criticism of our own medium. Yet leaders of some top American companies might tell you that a hard-nosed journalist’s asking tough questions in a National Association of Broadcasters group-head forum was inappropriate. “It was a personal vendetta,” said one. “He was too tough on him,” said another.

During the NAB convention forum, an out-of-work reporter named Pat Clawson stood up and gave John Hogan, COO of Clear Channel Radio, a difficult time, citing an example concerning the small Virginia town where he lives. He charged that the Clear Channel station did no local news, even when local scandals brought down a town official. Not a word was heard about it on the suburban Washington station, which Clawson alleges receives its news feeds from the Clear Channel station in Baltimore. He claimed that the Baltimore station wouldn’t even know how to pronounce the local mayor’s name. Clawson scolded Clear Channel for the lack of localism in his town and pressed Hogan for answers. Hogan’s response was that they should avoid a childish discussion in a public forum and that they should talk one-on-one after the session.

I was not present at the event, but everyone was discussing it. I heard enough talk that I started to register the comments, trying to get a feel whether there was a clear winner and a clear loser in the exchange.

As I questioned people in the bar of the Marriott Hotel, connected to the convention center, I received overwhelming support for Clawson. “The crowd was cheering,” said one broadcaster. “He spoke what we all felt.” Unanimously, the support at the Marriott (home of the convention’s average broadcaster) was for Clawson. Only one person, a group head, told me that he felt the exchange was healthy, with no winner or loser, but that Radio is the big loser if we are unwilling to allow heated discussions like this.

Across town at the Ritz Carlton, where the majority of group heads were staying, I asked the same questions in the bar that same night. The overwhelming response was just the opposite. “Hogan was unfairly and viciously attacked,” said one industry luminary. “The NAB should never have allowed this guy to ask these questions. It was like mob mentality. The crowd was angry.” Everyone I questioned at the Ritz responded the same way and said they felt Hogan was the clear winner in the exchange.

It was clear that the average Joe Broadcaster was on Clawson’s side and the average Joe Group Head was on Hogan’s side. I don’t care who won or lost.

In the book Good To Great, author Jim Collins says that successful companies have knock-down-drag-out fights about issues and decisions. Yet once a decision is made, everyone is back in the same camp at full-speed-ahead for the good of the company. They harbor no dissenting opinions once a decision has been made. The bottom line is that tough questions and arguments are healthy in companies — and within industries like our own.

We’re living in a time of severe political correctness, a time when most journalists are wimps who want to be liked. Gone are the hard-core journalists who struck fear into those on the receiving end. Though none of us likes the scrutiny of difficult questions, we must continue to ask them and continue to confront our industry leaders when we feel their actions are not in the best interest of the industry and its listeners. Thin skins have no place in executive seats or leadership roles.

As I was not present at the event, I don’t know whether Pat Clawson was out of line and inappropriately vicious or unprofessional, but I applaud him for standing up and asking tough questions. I also applaud a Clear Channel employee who had the guts to question Hogan about practices that went on inside her station (possibly more about her local manager than company policy). She should be promoted for not being a “yes man.”

Most of all, I applaud Eddie Fritts and the NAB for allowing the forum to continue and the questions to be asked. There is no place for inappropriate mud slinging, but we must always allow a forum where our industry can be called on the carpet and industry leaders can respond. If we’re a medium that truly believes in free speech, we must make sure that the first line of business is free speech within our own industry.

Keep asking those tough questions. The minute we stop, we lose.


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