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EXCLUSIVE: 911 Calls in North Dakota Town Reveal Dangers of Media Consolidation

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Five years ago this week, a train derailed in Minot, North Dakota, leaking thousands of gallons of toxic chemicals into the air. One person died, and hundreds were treated for immediate health problems. The city’s six nonreligious commercial radio stations — all owned by Clear Channel — never aired warnings for local residents. In a broadcast exclusive, we air the 911 tapes for the first time and speak to Eric Klinenberg, author of “Fighting for Air: The Battle to Control America’s Media.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Five years ago this week, a 112-car train derailed just outside Minot, North Dakota, the state’s fourth largest city. The accident occurred shortly before 2:00 in the morning on January 18, 2002. Minutes later, the train’s conductor called the local emergency dispatch.

911 MINOT DISPATCH: 911. What’s your emergency?

TRAIN CONDUCTOR: This Minot dispatch?

911 MINOT DISPATCH: Yes, it is.

TRAIN CONDUCTOR: We’ve got an emergency. We’ve had a derailment. We’ve got an explosion. Oh, it’s around Terracita Vallejo, CP Rail. We just had a derailment. We’ve got an explosion. Over.

911 MINOT DISPATCH: OK. Do you know what kind of chemicals are on board, sir?

TRAIN CONDUCTOR: We’ve got hazardous material, and I can smell stuff now.

AMY GOODMAN: The tapes we are playing for you today are a national broadcast exclusive. Two hundred forty thousand gallons of anhydrous ammonia leaked out of the train, producing a vapor plume that floated over the town. Limited exposure burns the eyes, the skin and the lungs. Larger doses can shut down the human respiratory system. The chemical leak in Minot, North Dakota, ended up killing one person and hospitalizing hundreds. But questions remain to this day over how the crisis was handled and the role played by media consolidation.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The radio giant Clear Channel owned all six commercial stations in Minot, North Dakota. None of them broke into regular programming to provide emergency information to the city’s residents. After the town’s Emergency Alert System failed, local officials tried to call the stations, but no one answered. The stations continued to play music piped in from out of state.

The sociologist Eric Klinenberg examines the tragedy in the opening of his new book, Fighting for Air: The Battle to Control America’s Media. He traveled to Minot, North Dakota, and obtained the 911 tapes from that night. In a moment, he will join us here live, but first let’s hear some of the phone calls. These recordings have never been aired before.

911 DISPATCH: 911. Emergency.


911 DISPATCH: Hello.

MINOT RESIDENT 1: We’re out at Terracita Vallejo, 625 37th Street SW. We don’t know what’s going on. Something sparked and flew. It wreaks in our backyard. We’re going to try to get out of the house.


MINOT RESIDENT 1: What is it? It’s bad. We’re going to try to go to the neighbor’s. What is it?

911 DISPATCH: OK, wait.

MINOT RESIDENT 1: Kelsey! Come in here! It smells really bad. I don’t know if the train blew up or —

911 DISPATCH: OK, yeah. There is a train derailment there.

MINOT RESIDENT 1: OK. Where’s Kelsey at?

911 DISPATCH: Do you have everybody in the room?

MINOT RESIDENT 1: No, we don’t. She sent my daughter out.

911 DISPATCH: Outside?

MINOT RESIDENT 1: Yell at her! Jackie!

MINOT RESIDENT 2: Kelsey, come back! Kelsey, can you come back?

911 DISPATCH: Do you have everybody there now?

MINOT RESIDENT 1: No, we don’t. My daughter isn’t there. I don’t have anything on. They’re all dressed, and she sent her out. But it smells really bad outside.

911 DISPATCH: OK, yeah. Just —

MINOT RESIDENT 1: Is she here?

MINOT RESIDENT 2: No, honey. She’s gone.


MINOT RESIDENT 2: She’s not here.

MINOT RESIDENT 1: Here, you stay on the phone. I got to get some clothes on.

911 DISPATCH: Ma’am?

MINOT RESIDENT 2: My daughter ran out the front door.

911 DISPATCH: She ran out? How old is your daughter?

MINOT RESIDENT 2: She’s 12. Is she going to die out there? You guys have to hurry, please!

911 DISPATCH: Just stay inside, OK? Tell everybody in your house to —

MINOT RESIDENT 2: Burn her lungs? Oh, my god! I’m sorry! I didn’t know what to do! Oh, she’s going to die. She can’t breathe out there. Where are you guys? It’s getting —

911 DISPATCH: OK. Are your doors closed?

MINOT RESIDENT 2: Yeah, we’re closed up, but we can’t breathe.

911 DISPATCH: Stand by.

MINOT RESIDENT 2: My daughter’s going to die out there.

AMY GOODMAN: On that night five years ago in Minot, North Dakota, callers flooded the emergency dispatch, seeking information on the chemical spill. The operators urged panicked residents to tune in to KCJB, 910 AM. This Clear Channel-owned station was the town’s designated local emergency broadcaster.

911 DISPATCH: 911. Emergency.

MINOT RESIDENT 3: I called a while ago about a power outage and ammonia smell.

911 DISPATCH: Well, you just need to stay in your house with the doors and windows closed until we direct differently.

MINOT RESIDENT 3: Well, how would we find out?

911 DISPATCH: We will get that out on cable TV or KCJB radio.

MINOT RESIDENT 3: Because our electricity is out, so we don’t get TV.

911 DISPATCH: Yeah. What about a radio?

MINOT RESIDENT 3: Well, we have a little transistor one.

911 DISPATCH: OK. That would be the thing to use, then.

MINOT RESIDENT 3: But what channel?

911 DISPATCH: KCJB, 910.


911 DISPATCH: Yes.

MINOT RESIDENT 3: 910. OK. We’ll try that. Thanks.

911 DISPATCH: 911. Emergency.

MINOT RESIDENT 4: We’re getting gassed.

911 DISPATCH: Stay in the house.

MINOT RESIDENT 4: I can’t breathe.

911 DISPATCH: OK. Listen to me. I’ll tell you what to do to help you, OK? Stay in your house. Keep your doors and windows closed.

MINOT RESIDENT 4: My god! What’s going on out here?

911 DISPATCH: Are you listening to me, sir?

MINOT RESIDENT 4: I’m outside on the street.

911 DISPATCH: Well, get in the house.


911 DISPATCH: Get in the house.

MINOT RESIDENT 4: What is it?

911 DISPATCH: I’m not sure, but you need to get in the house right now.



MINOT RESIDENT 4: We’re dropping dead in here.

911 DISPATCH: Are you in the house?

MINOT RESIDENT 4: Yeah. I’m going in the house. Now what do we do?

911 DISPATCH: OK, just stay there until we direct you differently. If you’ve got a radio, listen to 910, KCJB radio, 910 AM, OK?


911 DISPATCH: 911. Emergency.


911 DISPATCH: Hello.

MINOT RESIDENT 5: Yeah. Ammonia smell.

911 DISPATCH: Yeah. There’s a train derailment west of town. Stay in your house with the doors and windows closed. And we’ll direct you when we have other directions for you.

MINOT RESIDENT 5: Over what media?

911 DISPATCH: Probably either on EBS radio, KCJB radio, or cable TV system.


911 DISPATCH: 911. What is your emergency?

MINOT RESIDENT 6: Well, I’m wondering about this anhydrous.

911 DISPATCH: Sir, stay in your home. Treat it like smoke. Turn your furnace off. Put towels underneath the doors. Go in your bathroom. Turn the shower on, and cover your face with wet towels.


911 DISPATCH: And stay there until further instructions by law enforcement.

MINOT RESIDENT 6: OK, because the PA system doesn’t work.

911 DISPATCH: I understand that. And also, we’ve been putting it out over the cable TV and the radio.

MINOT RESIDENT 6: What’s the radio station?

911 DISPATCH: All the radio stations, sir.

MINOT RESIDENT 6: I had it on. I haven’t heard it once.

AMY GOODMAN: When residents of Minot, North Dakota, tuned into KCJB, there was no emergency information about the chemical spill. Well, Eric Klinenberg is with us now, associate professor of sociology at New York University and author of the new book, Fighting for Air: The Battle to Control America’s Media. He also wrote Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago. Welcome to Democracy Now!

ERIC KLINENBERG: Good to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain more about these tapes and what exactly happened in Minot.

ERIC KLINENBERG: Well, I had started to hear about this disaster, this communications breakdown in Minot, North Dakota, but I needed to know the real story of what happened there. Essentially, in this country, since the Cold War, we’ve treated the radio system as part of our national security system during a crisis. We turn on our radios when the power’s out to get information about how to stay safe. And in a time when the nation is concerned about securing the homeland and the threat of future crises, we’re investing massive resources in making sure we’re safe. The communications system should be a vital part of that.

So I started to contact people in Minot and asked them about the story and finally was able to persuade someone to send me these tapes that we’ve just heard. It’s disastrous, in a true sense of the term. People turned on their radio, trying to get emergency information, and instead just got the same deejay’s smooth talking, the same music they always get.

AMY GOODMAN: Why? Where were they?

ERIC KLINENBERG: Unfortunately, there was no one either in the studio of any of the six commercial radio stations that Clear Channel owns there, but also no one answering the phone, no one able to issue an alert.

JUAN GONZALEZ: So, in essence, all the stations were basically being programmed in automated fashion from someplace else?

ERIC KLINENBERG: That’s right. And Minot was alone in this respect. One of the major changes in the radio industry in the last 10 years is that we’ve seen the emergence of enormous consolidator companies. It used to be the case that there was no company that could own more than 40 stations in the country. Now, Clear Channel owns 1,200, and others own hundreds. They have replaced live local talent, deejays, talk show hosts, programmers, with automated programming, oftentimes faked to sound like it’s local, even though it’s programmed in a remote studio thousands of miles away. That night in Minot, North Dakota, there was no one in any of those six stations. They were all consolidated into two offices, and the result is that when the Emergency Alert System failed, there was no way to get the word out.

AMY GOODMAN: Where are the human beings?

ERIC KLINENBERG: That’s the question.

AMY GOODMAN: There’s rules in radio that you have to have a live operator.

ERIC KLINENBERG: Well, Clear Channel insists that they had someone in the studio or in the office that night. I probed. I asked Clear Channel executives, you know, “Who was there?” They wouldn’t give any information. I had one person in Minot tell me, a Clear Channel employee, “We had someone there that night, and they were so flooded with phone calls, of people saying there were problems, that every time they tried to call out, they found they couldn’t.” And my response to that, “Well, if someone was there getting so many phone calls, why didn’t they go on the air on any of the six stations and issue an alert?” No answer. It smelled very fishy to me.

I think this is a story that Americans need to know, because when we make policy decisions to allow more consolidated media ownership, to allow one company to own six stations, it’s my belief, my experience, that we compromise our local security, our national security.

The Minot story is not alone. I spoke with David Rubin, the dean of the communications school at Syracuse, on that blackout in August 2003 that swept across the Northeast and up into Canada. Syracuse was affected. He went immediately to his emergency broadcaster, his all-news radio station. It also turned out to be owned by Clear Channel, which owns seven stations in Syracuse. He got news about the streets of Manhattan. He couldn’t find out what was happening in his hometown. This is a serious problem. I think all of us need to ask ourselves what would happen in our hometowns if there was a crisis like the one in Minot.

AMY GOODMAN: Hold that thought. We’re going to go to break. Eric Klinenberg is our guest. His book is Fighting for Air: The Battle to Control America’s Media. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guest, Eric Klinenberg, associate professor of sociology at NYU, looking at media consolidation. Fighting for Air: The Battle to Control America’s Media is his book. Juan?

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to get back to the Minot situation there. What was the response of Clear Channel after the inevitable public criticism that had to come in the wake of this disaster? And also, what was the response of the FCC, which is supposed to regulate to make sure that these stations are operating in the public interest?

ERIC KLINENBERG: Well, Clear Channel did a major public relations campaign. They tried to spin the story, invested quite heavily in telling the story that there was someone there, and they were vague about the details. But they basically said, you know, the problem was in the hands of the local officials in Minot. They blamed the government.

Now, the Minot officials tried to trigger the Emergency Alert System, which would allow them, when working, to automatically override the broadcast from Clear Channel. But it was a new technology. As we heard, the power was out in much of Minot, and the technology did not work during that disaster.

The big questions, in my view, have to do with what was happening inside those Clear Channel stations, and you can’t get a clear answer from Clear Channel. You would think that the FCC would have looked very closely at this and other kinds of crises, like the ones in Syracuse that I described, for example.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I mean, if they can fine a disc jockey for using foul language on the air, what was their response to something like this?

ERIC KLINENBERG: Well, it turns out the FCC cares much more about indecency when it comes to foul language than they do indecency in the behavior of media companies that indecently treat the people they’re serving.

AMY GOODMAN: And, you know, whether or not there was one person somewhere that couldn’t manage to get on the air of the six radio stations, that’s also part of the problem. If six radio stations are owned by one company and there’s one person who’s having problems, then none of those airwaves are getting out the information that’s essential to the community.

ERIC KLINENBERG: That’s right. And people in Minot understood it that night, that once they called KCJB, the emergency broadcaster, and they knew that no one was answering the phone, there was no reason to call all the other stations. It was the same number. This is an issue that we have to deal with more seriously.

The FCC, I think, now understands that consolidation has compromised our capacity to broadcast emergency information. The problem is they’re not really doing anything to make up for this gap now. In fact, just a week ago, the National Association of Broadcasters asked the FCC to further raise the limits on media ownership for radio. It used to be the case that no company, 20 years ago, could own more than one AM and one FM station in any single market. Now they can own eight stations, and they want to own 10 or 12. The public health consequences of this could be catastrophic. The FCC, I think, understands, but they seem to be acting to promote the interest of the radio company rather than the people’s interest, which is what they’re charged to do.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk more about Clear Channel. You devote a whole chapter to Clear Channel.

ERIC KLINENBERG: Well, Clear Channel has become a kind of poster child for what can go wrong with media consolidation. And it’s important to note that Clear Channel doesn’t only own stations — they own 1,200 stations, which is far more than any other company — but they also own Premiere Radio Network, which is the largest company that does syndicated programs — Rush Limbaugh, for example, Dr. Laura, a number of big shows, which are actually on more than half of commercial broadcast stations in this country. So, in other words, even companies that are supposed to compete with Clear Channel depend on Clear Channel for much of their programming, their syndicated programming.

They own a major advertising organization that does bulk advertising. So when they move into a market, it can be very difficult for independent companies to compete. They also own outdoor advertising space. They own live concert venues. Live Nation has more concert venues than anyone else in the United States. So they’re really spread across this industry. The result is a far less competitive media marketplace and less local coverage.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, of course, their control of the concert halls also allows them to then be able to control music, I mean, who gets to perform, as well as who gets on the air.

ERIC KLINENBERG: That’s right. In my book, I interviewed many musicians and people in the music industry, and they said that there’s actually a kind of climate of fear that you hear among artists these days. Many of us know the stories of musicians who felt that they were punished for their political views. I mean, imagine musicians advocating peace, criticizing war. I mean, this is something that American musicians have done for a long time. But Clear Channel, which has avowedly conservative politics, supported President Bush, supported the war in Iraq, actually fired a number of personalities after they came out publicly and criticized the war, is thought to be the kind of company that will punish musicians for speaking their minds. And that has created a kind of culture of fear in the music community. People don’t want to offend this company, because they can keep them off the airwaves, etc.

AMY GOODMAN: But let’s be clear. While it’s now over 1,200 stations, it was able to consolidate in this way, buy up stations, as a result of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. That was not during the Bush years, but was actually signed off on by Clinton and Gore.

ERIC KLINENBERG: Absolutely. This a disaster of public policy, and it’s one that both parties in this country bear responsibility for. 1996 Telecommunications Act, it was really guided through Congress by Republicans. It was the first term of Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America, and this was a high priority — deregulation of media. The Clinton and Gore administration was enthusiastic about doing this information superhighway, and they basically allowed the radio industry to get deregulation without thinking much about it. And the Democrats bear heavy responsibility. I think today Democrats understand this issue much better than they did then, but both parties got us into this mess.

JUAN GONZALEZ: You also talk in your book to some degree about the impact of consolidation on diversity of voices and diversity of ownership. Specifically, you have some examples of African Americans who tried to build radio stations but were basically driven out of the market. Could you talk about that a little bit?

ERIC KLINENBERG: Yeah, the chapter on Clear Channel opens with the story of Robert Short Jr., also in Syracuse, an African-American man, grew up there, was frustrated about the lack of good black music that was on his radio. He wanted to start a radio station, but the start-up costs are very expensive, actually, and it took him a long time to raise the money. The FCC realized that there was a problem, not enough minority owners of broadcast stations, and they had special programs to get licenses to people like Robert Short. He got a license in 1995.

And in 1996, the Telecom Act happened. Clear Channel came into Syracuse, bought seven stations. After five years, he found that he couldn’t compete anymore. He did this great station. They did lots of civic programming. He was out in the community doing fairs, working on the school system and also getting more interesting programming than you get from the standard chains. Unfortunately, he had to sell out in 2000, and the bad news that we all need to know is that since this deregulatory push 10 years ago, we have lost 40 percent of the nation’s minority broadcast station owners. This nation is 33 percent people of color. Three percent of our broadcast station owners are people of color. This is a shame.

AMY GOODMAN: Eric Klinenberg, talk about United Church of Christ and civil rights in media.

ERIC KLINENBERG: Well, it’s an amazing story that few people know. And I want to be clear that Fighting for Air is not just a book about media consolidation. It’s also a book about the incredible emerging media reform movement that’s trying to create a more democratic and accountable media. And the United Church of Christ plays a central role in this story. They challenged a station renewal license in Jackson, Mississippi, for a local station, local television station, that refused to air a lot of civil rights coverage that would preempt national coverage when it was against the interest of the small number of station owners who had quite discriminatory politics built into their programming. They served a community in Jackson that was overwhelmingly African-American, and they misserved them, in fact, and failed to be accountable in ways that a broadcaster needs to be. The United Church of Christ fought a long legal battle to say, “We have standing as members of this community, that when a broadcast station discriminates against its own audience, when it doesn’t serve their interest, because they use the public airwaves — they depend on the public airwaves — we can challenge the license.” They won that case, and the result is, citizens now have a number of legal resources to fight back when the media misserves them.

AMY GOODMAN: It was an amazing story, how they had white students around the clock monitor the programming, describing each hour of that programming to show how it was excluding a vast part of the population.

ERIC KLINENBERG: That’s right. Citizens have become expert in becoming watchdogs of the media, because one thing we know about the media industry is it does not like to cover itself. In this story, it does coverage of how mergers affect the stock value. But I can tell you, from having written a book about trouble in the media business, that media companies do not like to cover their own business issues as political issues.

AMY GOODMAN: And when the ownership changed and went to a nonprofit controlling it, that’s when you could hear Medgar Evers. Soon afterwards, he was assassinated.

ERIC KLINENBERG: That’s exactly right. And today, we find a number of organizations — I should say on the right and also on the left — that use the techniques developed by the United Church of Christ in this case: Evaluate local media, do content analysis, and if your local broadcasters are misserving your community, say something.

The Youth Media Council is an organization in Oakland, California. They work with high school students there who are so angry about the criminalized coverage of young people in the Bay Area. This is a state, California, that had a soaring incarceration rate, especially among young people, at a time when the crime rate was dropping. They realized the local media was whipping up this anti-youth sentiment, by criminalizing them in their coverage. So they had high school students taping the coverage, monitoring to see when young people were spoken for, how they were represented, and they found the media was really failing to treat this issue accurately. They wrote a report called “Speaking for Ourselves,” and they presented it to general managers and station managers around the Bay Area. They made a big difference. And there are groups like this all over the country doing what I see as inspiring and important work.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, of course, even before the historical precedent of the United Church of Christ — I think one of the problems with our media reform movement right now is its lack of historical memory. But going back to the 1930s, there was actually the whole battle over Amos 'n' Andy, when The Pittsburgh Courier led a campaign of African Americans to take the racist programming — Amos 'n' Andy was then the most popular show in the nation. They collected 700,000 signatures from African Americans, demanding that the — then the Federal Radio Commission take it off the air. And the Federal Radio Commission totally ignored the petition by The Pittsburgh Courier and the NAACP in those days.

ERIC KLINENBERG: Yeah, look, we have a great history in this country of activist organizations, people of color, fighting to get better coverage to make this media system work better than it does. But, unfortunately, that is not a history that we are told very often. I think that we need to remember that our media corporations depend on a public resource, the airwaves, to do business, and that the FCC and the federal government is charged by law with promoting the people’s interest. We have lost sight of this dramatically in the last 10 years. We have developed a government agency that serves the interest of a small number of corporations that have grown too large, so large that they have alienated everyone on the political spectrum, whether it’s a red state or a blue state. And I think today we’re beginning to see an exciting movement to do something about this.

AMY GOODMAN: Eric Klinenberg, Prometheus Radio Project is another of the stories that you chronicle.

ERIC KLINENBERG: An amazing story. A group of anarchists in West Philadelphia, who started first Radio Mutiny, a low-power FM pirate radio station, that went up against the law — they didn’t have a license — and actually got shut down by the FCC. But they just — the people who ran this decided, if you shut down our station and go on a campaign of shutting down low-power amateur broadcast stations, which are such a great part of our nation’s broadcast history, now we’re going to do something about it. We’re going to go around the country, and we’re going to help groups start their own LP, low-power, FM stations. In fact, they said, “We’re going to start five stations for every one station that you shut down.”

And they protested. They went to Philadelphia to the statue of Benjamin Franklin’s printing press, and they said, “We’re going to do a broadcast from here. FCC, if you want to crack down on us, come and arrest us here.” They didn’t. Prometheus then marched on Washington, D.C. They went to the FCC. They went to the National Association of Broadcasters, and they raised their own flag, the Jolly Roger, and took down the National Association of Broadcasters’ flag. And now, what they do is they go around the country, they organize barn raisings. They help a community put up its own low-power FM station, so they can do independent media programming, independent local programming, and they get hundreds of people and create it as a community event.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking of which, right now, for the first time in a generation, licenses, noncommercial broadcast licenses, full-power — right?


AMY GOODMAN: — are going to go up — are up for grabs.

ERIC KLINENBERG: This happens maybe once every 20 years, and it’s something we all should know about. Sometime in April or May this year, the FCC will open up a window allowing communities with standing in the places where they live to apply for a full-power broadcast license, to do full-power radio programming. If you’re interesting in doing something like this — and you’ll have competition from organized religion, you’ll have competition from organized business — but if you want to have your own station, get in touch with the Prometheus Radio Project. Go to their website. Go to Find out how you can apply. We have a crisis in our communications system right now, and the only way that we will replenish it is if Americans learn about the opportunities that are there, whether it’s in broadcasting or in the digital frontier.

JUAN GONZALEZ: What about the arguments raised by proponents of increased consolidation, that the developing technology, that the spread of the Internet and the convergence of platforms — audio, video and print — on the Internet really mean that you don’t have to worry about the situation with the old media, the radio, classical radio and TV stations?

ERIC KLINENBERG: Yeah, well, the digital revolution is an incredible thing. It’s amazing that we can go to our computers, if we have computers, and go online, if we have home online access, which not all of us do, and get information from all over the world. This is a wonderful change. Unfortunately, if you look at the local level, how do you get news and information about what’s happening in your town? Where do you turn when there’s a disaster? Where do you turn if you want to know what’s going on with your school board, your city government, the businesses in your area, the polluting companies in your area? You’ll find that there’s actually fewer voices today, that actually the Internet does not, at this point, offer additional sources of primary journalism, of primary coverage.

In fact, I surveyed this nation’s media landscape. I looked at the radio industry, the television industry, newspapers, you know, where much of our news comes from, and what I saw was the loss of personnel, the loss of live human beings originally reporting the news in every industry. This is a real crisis, because if we have bad information to begin with, the Internet becomes an echo chamber for news that does not serve us, that actually can endanger us.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Eric Klinenberg, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Eric Klinenberg is associate professor of sociology at New York University. His book is called Fighting for Air: The Battle to Control America’s Media. Thank you.


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