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'SF Weekly' Cuts Deal With Clear Channel’s Bill Graham Presents – But Not Everyone Is Happy

(CelebrityAccess MediaWire) — The San Francisco Bay Guardian believes two anticompetitive chains seek to dominate concert ads. The Bay Guardian reports that the New Times, which owns SF Weekly and East Bay Express, has cut a deal with Clear Channel’s Bill Graham Presents that could shut other print media, including the Bay Guardian, out of hundreds of thousands of dollars in concert advertising.

Under the terms of the deal, according to the Bay Guardian, New Times will pay Clear Channel a sum in the high six figures for naming rights to San Francisco's historic Warfield Theatre, which for the next three years will become the SF Weekly Warfield, BGP representatives said. In exchange, Clear Channel will spend so much money on advertising in the Weekly and Express that there will be little or no money left for competing print media. In effect, one of the nation's largest media oligopolies has joined forces with the nation's largest alternative weekly chain to squeeze out an independently owned competitor.

"It's bad," Jeff Perlstein, executive director of Media Alliance, told the Bay Guardian. "As all these dark tentacles become entwined, it gets more and more serious as a threat to independent media."

Nobody at New Times, SF Weekly, or Clear Channel would return the Bay Guardian’s calls seeking comment. But a press release sent out June 27 from SF Weekly and BGP described the naming-rights deal and stated that SF Weekly and BGP "will collaborate across business fronts."

The press release never mentions New Times or Clear Channel and presents the deal as if it were just a friendly agreement between local companies.

BGP staffers who informed the Bay Guardian's entertainment account manager, Adam Shandobil, and marketing manager, Warren Spicer, of the deal said it was effective immediately. And in fact, BGP has pulled all of its ads from the Bay Guardian this week.

BGP presents concerts and events at the Fillmore, Shoreline Amphitheatre, Chronicle Pavilion, Punch Line, and Mountain Winery in the Bay Area, and at Sleep Train Amphitheatre in Marysville, among other venues, and ads from all of these are affected by the deal.

Media observers the Bay Guardian contacted said they'd never heard of a similar deal – but the arrangement comes as little surprise. The Bay Guardian reported that Clear Channel, which owns 7 local radio stations and more than 1,200 nationwide, is known around the country for its savage, anticompetitive policies and its attempts to establish hegemony in entertainment markets. New Times, which owns 11 alt-weeklies, has become an icon of cutthroat, anticompetitive behavior in the alternative press.

In the 1990s Clear Channel developed an aggressive strategy of buying up not only local radio stations but billboard companies and concert and sports promoters. The idea, as the Wall Street Journal reported June 24, was that "Clear Channel figured its radio stations and billboards could shill upcoming concerts, and performers would gravitate to its venues for the extra marketing. The radio stations would push concert offerings in each market."

But it hasn't worked out that well. "Instead," the Journal noted, "the combination irked music fans, record labels, and artists, who complained that Clear Channel used its might to punish artists who didn't play by its rules and contributed to the sharp rise in ticket prices at venues it controls."

That's why Clear Channel recently announced plans to spin off its concert business as a new subsidiary.

The media company has also been accused of censorship. The day after the Sept. 11 attacks, Clear Channel issued a list of songs that its stations were advised not to play, including John Lennon's "Imagine" and anything by Rage Against the Machine. Shortly after Clear Channel bought Bay Area radio station KMEL, the station fired producer David "Davey D" Cook, who had dared to air a show about Rep. Barbara Lee's objections to the invasion of Afghanistan. The corporation has close links to the Bush administration, and in 2003 Clear Channel stations sponsored rallies supporting the administration's war in Iraq.

The Bay Guardian reported “these are the people SF Weekly is getting into bed with.”

New Times and Clear Channel have at least one thing in common: They hate competition. In October 2002 New Times cut a deal with Village Voice Media in which the two chains agreed to end competition in Los Angeles and Cleveland by shutting down a pair of alternative papers. New Times closed its LA paper and secured the Cleveland market for itself; VVM reciprocated by shutting down its Cleveland operation. The US Justice Department declared the deal illegal (see Bay Guardian article "New Times Nailed," 1/21/03).

Sherry Wasserman, a senior official at Another Planet, a BGP competitor, said the deal sounded highly unusual. "Look at the Chronicle Pavilion, which still advertises in the Contra Costa Times and every other place," she said.

Guy Carson, owner of Café du Nord, said the arrangement might have a negative affect on the local music scene. "Obviously this has big implications," he told us. "To the extent that it hurts the Bay Guardian and [the] Chronicle, it's going to hurt the local scene.

"Maybe," he added, "SF is not immune to general homogenization."