A Fairness Doctrine for the 21st Century

Broadcast radio is a mess. The experiment has failed. A few huge "media conglomerates" tried to buy up all of the stations and monopolize the advertising revenue, and it failed miserably.  It's time to pack it up and roll things back to where they used to be. Local stations owned mostly by local people, who cared about the community. 


Now, you may argue the importance of terrestrial radio in the Internet age, but the fact of the matter is, everyone has easy access to a cheap-o AM/FM radio, and a local signal, even in a time of crisis. We need information about traffic and weather, in order to make decisions about our daily lives, and let's face it; news is an important part of our lives. 


The conglomerates have completely ruined radio. Most of the content is "piped in." Most of the best air personalities are now hawking podcasts. There is far too much "sports talk," because it's apparently very being offered really cheaply.  And talk radio is dominated by one point of view. That simply shouldn't be the case. It's time we went back to basics. Stop treating radio as if it's a "free market" in which anyone can own a station and do what he wants, and go back to treating broadcasting as a public trust, which it is. 


These are OUR airwaves, and it's high time to take them back. It's time to make the major conglomerates divest, and return ownership to locals.  


It's probably also the perfect time to introduce a new version of the Fairness Doctrine. 


We really need one. Consider this: the Baltimore/Washington, DC area could very well be the most liberal metropolitan area in the country. More than 7 million people live there, and even most Republicans here can be reasoned with. Neither Baltimore nor Washington has elected a Republican for nearly a century, and their suburbs, including Northern Virginia, tend to be very liberal. 


Yet, despite the political demographics of the area, the white Republican visitor from Alabama would feel right at home. The commercial radio market features ten stations that program political or news-based talk weekdays, not including duplicates (there are a lot of duplicates, which indicates another problem). Only two of those stations feature a format that is not ultra right wing. One is a relatively low-power station in the heart of the District that features syndicated progressive talk, and the other is a black-oriented talk station. 


In what is almost certainly one of the most liberal markets in the country, 80% of the time allocated to talk radio programming consists of far right wing talkers. In fact, until We Act Radio) came to life last year,  that number topped 90%. When you include NPR's talk shows, more than 75% of talk radio airtime is taken up by extreme right wing talkers.  Oh yeah; and predictably, their ratings are terrible. 


So, why are our public airwaves being clogged with such silliness? That's easy. It's because the company that owns the radio station carrying that drivel also owns the production company that provides the programming. They're not actually trying to get high ratings, as much as they're trying to lock out the competition. They can guarantee Rush Limbaugh is on in DC, but by owning and programming so many stations in a market, they can lock out the competition. For example, if you have 3-4 sports talk stations in your area, this is why; it prevents Ed Schultz or Thom Hartmann from getting on the air in that market, and cutting into Limbaugh's already meager ratings. 


This isn't about progressive radio, either. Music radio has become unlistenable in recent years, as more and more stations become nothing more than jukeboxes full of crappy music. On a personal note, I object to having to tune in to Australian or British radio to find decent entertainment and news. 


A few large conglomerates have ruined terrestrial radio, because they control everything. They went on a buying spree a while back, and overpaid for thousands of radio stations. These geniuses had the bright idea that, if they controlled all of the advertising mechanisms in a given market, they could charge advertisers whatever they wanted and be rolling in the dough. If you've been following this business at all, that didn't happen. There has been a lot of restructuring and many bankruptcies, but so far, no really big money is being made. Therefore, there have been huge cutbacks. Thousands of jobs have been lost, and the entire radio spectrum is practically unlistenable. And that is driving people away from the one medium available to them that can save their lives in an emergency. 


Whatever happened to the mission that appears on every single FCC license, that requires those who use the public airwaves to serve the public good? Why should we be faced with a dial full of garbage, just because a few failed businessmen paid too much to acquire the licenses a while back and still have dreams of getting their money back? It's time we, the people, took back the airwaves. 


This is not a "free speech" issue. The issue is access. Whatever happened to our "freedom of choice"? What if I'm driving through Tennessee, and I want to listen to talk radio at noon, but I don't want to listen to Rush Limbaugh? What if I see dark clouds up ahead, and I want to hear a weather report? Why do the major conglomerates get to dictate to me that I must listen to Rush Limbaugh on my radio? Those airwaves don't belong to them. They belong to us.


The dominance of right wing radio is not because it makes more money. It's because the conglomerates own the programs. It doesn't cost Clear Channel a dime to play Limbaugh's show on a Clear Channel station. Think about it. 


The market is working against us as a nation, and Congress needs to do its job and make sure the airwaves are useful to the markets they purport to serve. Again, this is not about progressive talk radio; that's just the most glaring example of how far off the reservation the FCC has gone.  The same thing is true about alternative or progressive rock music, or classical music, or even public service radio, which used to be a staple of radio on weekends, but has nearly vanished. The fact is, all good radio is local, and there's very little local radio. 


It's time for a new look at an old friend, the Fairness Doctrine. 


The old Fairness Doctrine was unrealistic, and was not good. It actually kept most talk radio off the air in most markets. It required every controversial issue aired to be equally represented by all sides, which is absurd.  Who gets to decide what constitutes an important issue, for example? And how many different viewpoints must a station owner be forced to present? Some issues have 50 sides, after all. A station owner couldn't possibly be expected to fulfill that. 


So, what should we do? We cannot allow the people who control the licenses to our airwaves to get away with monopolizing the entire broadcast spectrum, and ALSO using the "free speech" red herring to lock many voices out of the market altogether.


Therefore, I propose a NEW Fairness Doctrine; one that reflects current realities in the market.


First, let's categorize opinion shows based on their general content. Show producers or distributors or an independent body can do that; it doesn't have to be the FCC. Talk shows can be political left, political right, hot talk containing virtually no political content, and "other," which might include self-help or advice shows. 


Whether or not the New Fairness Doctrine should apply should be based a combination of factors, including market size, diversity of ownership, and the range of each station's signal at various times of the day. 


In those markets in which the New Fairness Doctrine would apply, station owners will have a choice. If they are carrying a line-up of right wingers for all or most of the 18 hours between 6 AM and Midnight, they can either carry a number of hours of progressive talk equal to at least one-third of the time on that same station, or they can program another station in the same market with an equal amount of progressive talk. If they choose the latter, the progressive station must have a radiated power comparable to the right wing station. If another company is already providing progressive talk programming in the area, a waiver should be issued.


A right wing talk station owner may also apply for a waiver if they can prove that carrying progressive talk is resulting in financial hardship. If a company runs progressive talk for a minimum of a year, and can demonstrate no support for progressive talk, then of course they should be issued a waiver. No one should be forced to lose money.


In addition to this, all stations should once again be mandated to carry news and public informational programming for a significant portion of every broadcast day. Every licensee should be required to carry programming in the public interest, as is required by their license.


Licensees should also be required to make time available for alternative viewpoints, especially in cases where it can be demonstrated that an on-air host has lied about a subject on a previous program. Of course, hosts have the right to lie. But on the public airwaves, the public should have the ability to challenge that lie. 


For example, stations may be required to set aside 20-30 minutes a day during the hours of 6 AM to Midnight for editorials, presenting alternative viewpoints, within every talk show on the dial. Station owners can charge a reasonable fee for presenting an editorial, and they can limit the length, if they so choose. But they should be required to set aside about for such editorials, they should be open to the general public, and station owners should not be allowed to turn down any editorial because of content, unless it's obscene.


The New Fairness Doctrine should also put an end to the practice of bundling, in which a radio station that wants to carry one program has to take another, whether they want to or not. If a station wants to carry Limbaugh or Hannity, they should not be forced to take another three to six hours of programming daily, in return for the "privilege."


There you have it. A Fairness Doctrine that reflects the realities of the marketplace.


The whole idea behind licensing in the first place was to bring order to the airwaves, so that people could broadcast without being drowned out by others. The radio spectrum is owned by the people; the only thing companies like Clear Channel, CBS Radio, Salem or Bonneville actually own is the right to use the frequency. The license itself contains a promise; that their quest to make money will be balanced with a duty to serve the public interest. 


Once more; this is not a free speech issue. It's an access issue. The end result of allowing a select few companies to buy up most of the commercial licenses in the country has been the near destruction of the usefulness of the broadcast spectrum by the public. 


The first thing to do is to force these huge companies to divest of most of their stations. But if we can't put the ownership genie back in the bottle, but we can damn sure make license holders follow the agreement they themselves signed when they gained access to the license. 



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One comment

  1. Some random thoughts and observations:
    I recall reading a while back that evacuation efforts in one state experiencing flash flooding could have been more effective had the only radio station in the area had been airing local news rather than piped in programming originating in another state.
    I’m all in favor of a new, improved Fairness Doctrine, if it could, if nothing else, reduce the homogenization of radio everywhere I go in this country. It all sounds alike to me, and it all sounds like crap. The music stations all sound alike, and the political programming…
    I’ve talked to adults younger than I am that hate liberals but don’t know what a liberal is, largely because that’s the only political viewpoint they’ve ever heard on the radio.
    Whenever I am in a situation where I’m forced to listen to the radio, I’m reminded of being in a supermarket or large retail store, since those places play endless streams of the bland, tasteless (in my view) “music” you hear all over the radio. I also wish programmers of “oldies” and “classic rock” stations would avail themselves of the countless great old tunes out there that just don’t get played any more. Every one of those stations I ever hear appear to be programmed by, if not the same programmer, programmers with the same mentality.
    And I would seriously love to be able to hear progressive rock on the radio again.

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