October 19, 2003Martin Stolz
Plain Dealer Reporter
CORRECTION: Because of a reporting error, this story about bicyclists and Clear Channel Communications gave an incorrect occupation for Patrick Galla. Galla is a structural technician who works at an engineering firm. END
Cleveland radio disc jockeys created a local frenzy last summer when they advocated that motorists mow down bicyclists.
Similar comments last month on Raleigh and Houston radio stations - all owned by Clear Channel Communications - have sparked a national furor against the company. Some bicyclists have asked the federal government to punish the company or revoke broadcast licenses.
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The spiritual leader behind the fight against the nation's biggest radio conglomerate is Lois Cowan, a Cleveland woman who runs four bike shops and rallies supporters using pleas posted as "idiot alerts" on a Web site and in e-mail.
The controversy began June 30 with broadcasters on the "Lanigan and Malone" show on WMJI-FM/105.7. "Cleveland's Knuckleheads," as the station promotes them, and on-air callers described ways to heckle cyclists, edge them off the road or strike them with car doors, according to listeners. Such acts could bring felony assault or other criminal charges.
The weeklong banter frayed nerves, both of motorists frustrated by cyclists on the road and of the fearful bicyclists, who have a legal right to use any road in Ohio except interstate highways.
On July 3, the show had an on-air telephone interview with Cowan, owner of Century Cycles shops.
The DJs derided her explanation of Ohio law, saying she suffered from PMS, she said.
The next week, Cowan sat down with Clear Channel officials, who agreed to apologize on-air to bicyclists, broadcast public service announcements about sharing the road and donate $10,000 for bike advocacy.
Cowan thought the crisis had passed.
That changed last month when she learned about anti-bicycle rants on Clear Channel stations in Raleigh, N.C. and Houston.
On Aug. 30, a pickup truck driver in Texas hit a line of bicyclists, killing two and injuring three. On Sept. 2, a Houston station offered bicycle-disabling advice and jokes similar to what aired in Cleveland. Then, beginning on Sept. 22, a Clear Channel station in Raleigh did the same. Both stations later apologized.
Cowan, a finalist for the National Bicycle Dealers Association "Advocate of the Year" award, learned of the Houston broadcasts from a friend of the dead cyclists. In response, she filed a formal complaint with the Federal Communications Commission. She asked the FCC to investigate and to help her get tapes from WMJI. Other cyclists have filed complaints, too, the FCC said.
"They obviously haven't gotten the message," Cowan said. "I don't consider it worked out."
Clear Channel operates more than 1,200 radio stations in the United States. The company holds FCC licenses for nine stations in the Cleveland/Akron market. For years, WMJI, an oldies rock station, has consistently been one of the region's highest-rated and most-profitable stations.
The company has tapes of the "Lanigan and Malone" shows but will not release them, said Kevin Metheny, the company's regional vice president of programming. "We are not inclined to get into the tedious details," he said.
"If the bicycle enthusiasts wish to enumerate the details, they are free to do so," he added. "But we apologized, we extended numerous, substantial gestures of goodwill, and we believe we have moved on."
Lawyer Patrick Galla, 55, a cyclist who rides his bike about 9,000 miles each year, took notes on all the broadcasts. His firm, Barber and Hoffman, tunes in all day to WMJI. He was listening when the subject of bikers first came up in June.
According to Galla, sports anchor Mark Bishop complained on a "Monday Moaning" segment about encountering a line of cyclists on Lake Road in Avon Lake. Bishop told listeners that as he passed, he wanted to yell obscenities at the cyclists for blocking the road. But Bishop said he forgot to roll down the passenger-side window and shouted in his wife's ear instead.
News anchor Chip Kullik responded that Bishop could have hit them or run them off the road, Galla said.
Galla said host Jimmy Malone did not participate in the banter or respond to callers, whose comments mostly echoed Kullik's. At one point, Malone announced that he rides a bike, Galla said.
As the week progressed, callers' comments grew increasingly irate, Galla said. The station offered dinner prizes for callers with the most outlandish ideas for thwarting bicyclists, he said. One motorist suggested speeding ahead and then abruptly stopping and throwing open the passenger door in a cyclist's path.
Host John Lanigan was on vacation, though he joined the discussion the next week to complain about the deluge of e-mails, including one asking whether his show helped the public.
"Well, quite frankly, I'm not here to serve the interests of the community," he says in a recording of the show. "I'm serving my interests by being here."
After Metheny brokered peace, he explained what happened to his boss, who oversees radio stations in Ohio and neighboring states. He declined to say whether Clear Channel directed stations in other states to avoid or to allow similar programming.
Clear Channel is not new to controversy. In the past year, it has been accused of monopolizing the radio industry, banning the Dixie Chicks and acting as a right-wing mouthpiece.
The company is in the sights of U.S. Sens. John McCain, Russ Feingold and Byron Dorgan.
A Washington-based public-interest research group, Essential Information, last month challenged FCC renewal of 63 broadcast licenses held by Clear Channel stations. The complaint accuses the company of committing animal cruelty, staging fake competitions, abusing the emergency alert system and causing false emergencies by having on-air personalities commit crimes.
"Every station is required, believe it or not, to have 'good character' as part of the public-interest standard," said Jim Donahue, a researcher for Essential Information. He said the law does not appear to matter to Clear Channel. "That's why I'm not surprised that they want motorists to run over bicyclists."
"These kinds of stunts," he said, "should be considered part of the overall history of Clear Channel's violations of law."
WMJI, whose license is up for renewal next October, was not in Donahue's complaint.
Because of the pending complaints from bicyclists, FCC lawyers declined to comment on whether inciting violence betrayed the commission's Character Policy Statement.
Susan Elmore, a company spokeswoman, said Clear Channel does not "condone advocating violence in any form. We've been committed to working with the cycling community in each of these separate incidences."
Elmore said Clear Channel had no comment about the company's compliance with the FCC's character rules.
Cal Kirchick, a Cleveland lawyer and bicycle advocate, said WMJI probably violated Ohio laws against inciting violence. If a motorist were to harm a bicyclist, he added, the company could be found liable.
The FCC cannot censor content. But it restricts obscene and indecent speech.
Violators can be fined or lose their licenses.
Cowan said radio stations should be concerned about bicyclists' safety. Last year, 15 Ohio cyclists and 647 in other states died in accidents with cars.
"This is a serious problem," she said. "The media has some responsibility to the public."
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© 2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission