Forget the Doctrine; But Get Back to Fairness

Limbaugh stokes debate on talk radio. Is it too conservative? Should the government mandate fairness?

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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.