No. 37: Alec Foege’s “Right of the Dial” and Taylor Clark’s “Starbucked”

It doesn’t much matter that Alec Foege’s Right of the Dial: the Rise of Clear Channel and the Fall of Commercial Radio (Faber and Faber) concerns a right-leaning Dallas-based company that thrived via surreptitiousness and guile, and that Taylor Clarke’s Starbucked: A Double Tall Tale of Caffeine, Commerce, and Culture (Little, Brown and Company) regards one that at least affects a left-ish posture and that slings products that have become conspicuous sacraments for the bourgeois.

What matters is that Clear Channel and Starbucks both rose in the mid-’90s via crushing competition and promoting uniformity in the radio and beverage-retail rackets, respectively. And while Foege’s narrative style is sober and moralistic where Clarke’s is playful and amused, both books depict how what used to be understood as provincial, mom and pop-style business models could be transformed into Exhibit A and B of an American tendency to flatten difference and a sense of place.

Wherever you are in America, Clear Channel and Starbucks are nearby and available to make you secure that the songs you hear and the coffee you drink are eternal and not subject to cultural and geographic differences. And the downturn that has affected the two companies since the publication of these books will not change that. If, as has seemed likely for the last month or so, we will be wearing loincloths and carrying spears this time next year, we will be listening to “Free Bird” and sipping a venti nonfat iced latte before we storm the warlord’s village.

Alec Foege [Official site]
Taylor Clark Q&A [Powell's]
80 ’08 (and Heartbreak)

  • Anonymous

    Clear Channel are based in San Antonio, which is no excuse for their behavior, but still…..

  • Dickdogfood

    Isn’t calling Starbucks product “conspicuous sacraments for the bourgeois” laying it on a just little bit thick? Hey, why don’t you equate frapuccinos to the Eucharist while you’re at it?

  • Maura Johnston

    @Dickdogfood: Do Communion wafers come in caramel now???

  • Dickdogfood

    @Maura Johnston: Right now there’s only Original, Nacho Cheese, and Cool Ranch.

  • heyzeus

    Starbucks took over the coffee racket because more people were buying their coffee than from other stores. Nobody made them. They had a product, it was popular, and they sold a lot of it at a price exceeding their costs.

    Clearchannel…similar story. Find a formula that brings in more revenue than operating costs, replicate formula in other markets.

    Consumer preferences are already changing, along with economic conditions. It remains to be seen whether either of these companies are nimble enough to adjust their business models. But I can’t bemoan the hegemony of “corporate coffee” and “corporate radio” because it’s the choice of consumers in a free country whether they want to consume either one.

  • Anono-Critic

    “But I can’t bemoan the hegemony of “corporate coffee” and “corporate radio” because it’s the choice of consumers in a free country whether they want to consume either one.”

    that is, of course, your perfect and immutable right, heyzeus. however, either of these books go into great detail as to the complexities involved in consumer choices. which is to say, both authors believe that the Mays family, Howard Schultz etc reduced consumer choice.

  • heyzeus

    I’d argue the opposite though. Part of the stultifying effect of Clear Channel owning every station in every market was the birth and popularization of numerous alternative choices: Satellite radio, digital radio, the ubiquity of the ipod and technologies that allow you to broadcast your ipod over a radio, mp3′s (both legal and otherwise)…the list goes on. A lot of these options would exist regardless of Clearchannel. But I believe a lot of these technologies wouldn’t have “tipped” but for the direction Clear Channel took radio.

    So too with coffee. Funky local coffee houses existed before Starbucks, of course. But there have never been more, and there has never been more variety of coffees available both in stores and in local coffeehouses. Overall consumption of coffee exploded in the U.S. in the Starbucks era, and the number of options to get it rose too.

  • Anono-Critic

    Both books explore the phemonena you cite, and honestly, I think that your comments indicate that you might find both very enlightening.

  • AL

    Nice picks. As someone who’s spent much of the past few months reading Baffler anthologies and Thomas Frank books, these look like my kind of reads.

  • heyzeus

    I may have to pick up one or the other.