With a Democrat in the White House, radio station owners around the country are rushing to reflect the new direction of American politics by adding more liberal talk show hosts to their daily lineup. Right?
Wrong. On March 16, Cumulus Broadcasting flipped WLBY AM 1290 in Ann Arbor, Mich., from progressive talk to canned financial advice. Next month, Clear Channel is expected to drop progressive talk on giant 940 WINZ-AM in Miami in favor of sports. And these are only the latest two markets—after Sacramento, Calif., Rochester, N.Y., Phoenix, and Washington, D.C.—to dump progressive talk for Spanish-language, Christian, sports, or financial programming.
Today, talk radio is virtually a right-wing monopoly, where seldom is heard a progressive word. In many cities considered bastions of liberalism—Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, Providence, R.I., Boston, Atlanta, and Washington—there is not one progressive talk radio station. In fact, there are some 2,000 commercial talk radio stations in the country, of which, at best, only 60 broadcast progressive talk. That imbalance must not be allowed to continue.
What’s the answer? Believe it or not, the answer is not to bring back the fairness doctrine. And nobody, in fact, is calling for doing so.
The fairness doctrine was in place from 1949 to 1987. Given all the changes in means of communication since then, bringing back the fairness doctrine today makes as much sense as bringing back black and white television.
But the issue of “fairness” is still relevant. For one paramount reason that conservatives conveniently ignore: We’re talking about public airwaves. Broadcast corporations don’t own the airwaves; they only receive a license from the Federal Communications Commission—free!—to broadcast over those airwaves. And, according to the terms of that—free!—license, they have only one obligation: “to operate in the public interest and to afford reasonable opportunity for the discussion of conflicting views of issues of public importance.”
This point cannot be disputed: Station owners are not operating “in the public interest” when they offer only conservative talk.
How to provide some balance to the public airwaves, if not by restoring the fairness doctrine? That’s the challenge facing the FCC and Congress. The answer is both enforcement of standards for ownership and oversight guaranteeing that public airwaves are, in fact, operated in the public interest.
On ownership, the current system—where three companies control the majority of radio stations as measured by revenue in any given market—must be changed. National radio ownership by any one entity should not exceed 5 percent of the total number of AM and FM broadcast stations. Locally, no one entity should control more than 10 percent of the total commercial radio stations. And, to avoid a clear conflict of interest, owners of the radio networks that provide syndicated programming should be banned from owning the stations on which those shows are broadcast. This simple, common-sense measure would return the program decision-making process to the local manager from the corporate hack at headquarters whose sole interest is the bottom line, not the public’s interest.
On oversight, the FCC should take measures to ensure local needs are being met by providing a license to radio broadcasters for no more than three years at a time and by requiring licensees to show regularly that they are operating in the public interest.
The aim of these standards is threefold: to restore balance to the public airwaves, to provide listeners choice in talk radio programming, and to encourage competition in broadcasting. Afraid of competition on the airwaves, conservatives make three amazingly lame arguments against any action by the FCC or Congress.
They argue, first, that progressive talk radio has been tried and failed. Wrong. As pointed out above, progressive talk radio doesn’t even exist in many major markets. If it has never even been heard, you can’t say it didn’t work.
Where progressive talk shows are broadcast, on the other hand, there are solid success stories. In Palm Springs, Calif., KPTR AM 1340 doubled its ratings from fall 2007 to fall 2008. In Minnesota, independent owner Janet Robert has operated KTNF 950 AM profitably for five years. In Madison, Wis., WXXM 92.1 FM just scored its highest ratings ever. And KPOJ in Portland, Ore., soared with progressive talk programming from No. 23 in market ratings to No. 1.
Next, opponents of fairness in broadcasting argue that nobody needs progressive talk radio, because listeners can always find liberal content on National Public Radio. Now that’s laugh-out-loud funny! There’s a clear difference between commercial talk and public broadcasting. NPR’s laudable but painfully laborious effort to show both sides of every issue is a far cry from both conservative and liberal talk radio.
Finally, they argue that nobody wants to listen to progressive talk. Wrong again. Just look at the last election. Fifty-three percent of American voters supported Barack Obama. Because of its predominantly right-wing content, that means talk radio today is not serving 53 percent of Americans. Again, experience has shown that, given the opportunity, progressive talkers Ed Schultz, Randi Rhodes, Stephanie Miller, Thom Hartmann, and I can more than hold our own in competition with conservative talkers.
In the end, that’s all progressives are asking the FCC and Congress to provide today: opportunities for more competition in the open marketplace. So why all the fuss? Isn’t that what conservatives are supposed to believe in?
- Tell us what you think: Is a new fairness doctrine needed?