Clear Channel + Air America = Strategic Thinking?

Usually I stay out of the cesspool that is commercial radio these days but some recent news enticed me to dip a toe back in.
Air America, the pro-Democrat talk radio network launched earlier this year to counter the right-wing blather of Rush et. al., has lined up several new affiliate stations in the past few weeks.
Surprisingly, many of these stations happen to be owned by Clear Channel Communications – heretofore better known for their corporate conservatism (a “suggested” list of songs not to play in the post-9/11 aftermath, “Rallies for America,” a penchant for donations to Republicans, etc.).
At first glance a deal between the two seems strange, given their disparate political leanings. Many have explained it by noting that Clear Channel is a corporation first and foremost, and therefore is ultimately driven by the profit motive. If it can exploit the niche of “liberal” talk radio for profit and give “liberals” some much-needed exposure in the process, where’s the foul?
However, it’s important to remember that Clear Channel is notorious for playing hardball – leveraging its size and reach to pound on competitors (or them kill outright) with an eye on maximizing future growth opportunities. With this in mind, one might also view the company’s latest moves as a honey-trap strategy that, in the long term, could water down Air America’s quasi-progressive zeal and/or bring it to heel. Here’s how:
Let’s imagine, say a year from now, that Air America’s network has 200 affiliates. Of those, 100 are Clear Channel stations. One day, CC overlord Lowry Mays picks up the phone and calls Air America. “You know, I think (Show X) is crossing the line with their anti-GOP screeds. Can you get them to tone it down a notch? Otherwise, we may be forced to drop Air America from our stations.”
A network that stands to lose 50% of its affiliates will bend under such pressure. (The figures in this hypothetical are arbitrary, but a lower number, like 30%, would still constitute a serious problem for Air America – especially if it stood to lose affiliates in larger markets.)
Then there is the question of contracts. Most radio networks and syndicators have a market exclusivity clause in their contracts, which gives the affiliate the exclusive right to broadcast that programming in their market. Usually this works in the favor of both the network/syndicator and the affiliate station: the network/syndicator gets an outlet in the market and the affiliate doesn’t have to worry about other stations cross-programming the same content, which would dilute its audience base and make it less attractive to carry.
Depending on how the market exclusivity clause in Air America affiliate contracts is worded, under the above scenario Clear Channel might conceivably end up with a WMD to deploy against the network: it could, at a later date, choose to dump Air America from its stations and still retain market exclusivity over its programming – thereby freezing Air America out of several markets until its contracts with the Clear Channel stations expire.
Whether conspiracy theory or prescience, Clear Channel wins twice – it makes some coin in the short term and builds leverage to curtail (or silence) “liberal radio,” if necessary, further down the road. It’s no secret that not all stations in your local Clear Channel cluster make a profit – some are run as loss-leaders, and putting stations in this predicament would be nothing new for the company.
It’s also no secret that Air America has been hurting for affiliates (~30 stations in five months is not phenomenal growth). It probably sees Clear Channel’s interest as a saving grace that gives the network penetration into markets where it otherwise wouldn’t air. But anytime you deal with the devil you run the risk of getting burned.
Considering how Air America has fumbled about so far, this consideration probably never even registered on their radar. Yet this strategy may seem plausible to the boys in San Antonio: they didn’t get to be the biggest player in the radio industry by being short-sighted – or playing nice. Such a move would certainly make Clear Channel’s political predilections crystal clear; depending on how the political environment (d)evolves in the next few months, such a scheme might not seem so controversial a year from now. I certainly hope I’m wrong.