Sunday, February 8, 2009

Bill Press Hits the Bullseye on D.C. Radio

Bill Press absolutely makes a spot-on commentary here writing on the state of talk radio in D.C.

To summarize, political discourse was one of the casualties resulting from the deregulation of broadcast radio and television. Until 1987, broadcasters were required to abide by a F.C.C. rule called the Fairness Doctrine whereby a small amount of time was to be reserved by the radio or TV station for public comment. The idea behind the Fairness Doctrine was to protect the public's interest from gov't and corporate propaganda.

Since the Fairness Doctrine's repeal, news and public affairs programming on radio and television has become kabuki theater. In its place is something that's supposed to look like news and political debate, but really isn't. News talk radio has become particularly banal with the likes of right-wing carneys like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity dominating the medium. Press tells of Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder's Red Zebra Broadcasting's decision to, "... jettison all progressive talk...", on 1260 AM, "... and replace it with pre-recorded financial advice programming". Red Zebra has built rather quickly a regional radio network out of mostly mediocre performing D.C.-area AMers, including WTNT 570, WTEM 980, WHFS 158o, and WWDC 1260 -- probably looking to better leverage the Redskins with advertisers. While the company's motives for buying the stations and making programming decisions are certainly understandable, it's another question entirely whether permitting such ownership groups in a given market is in the best interests of the public... y'know.... the folks who actually own the airwaves.

Press argues -- correctly in my view -- for the Fairness Doctrine to be resurrected by the FCC, and if not by them, by congressional mandate. In its original form, the Fairness Doctrine ensured the discussion of controversial topics and dissenting viewpoints over the airwaves. Because broadcast TV and radio frequencies are scarce physical resources, protecting the public's access to them is an important civil liberties principle. I also believe re-implementing the Fairness Doctrine would make for more dynamic, provocative radio & TV news/talk programming as listeners are more likely to participate in topics they find interesting, once they're provided expanded opportunities for comment. Given what today's broadcasters face in competition from the Internet, Satrad, mobile media devices, PCs, etc., you'd think they'd be eager to embrace any strategy that attracts a larger audience.

Unfortunately, the ownership rules have been relaxed to the point that restoring the Fairness Doctrine by itself might not achieve the level of programming diversity Press and others (including myself) prefer as optimum. It should be 1 part of a vigorous licensing policy applied to U.S. broadcasters designed to ensure maximum competition on behalf of the public interest. For the time being, however, bringing back the Fairness Doctrine would be a good first step.