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Published: Sunday, 2/22/2009

Fairness on the AM dial

TALK of a liberal conspiracy to "hush Rush" by resurrecting broadcasting's "Fairness Doctrine" is silly, little more than a straw man bashed about regularly by politically conservative pitchmen eager to sustain their lucrative audiences in the waning days of AM radio.

Still, there's nothing wrong with restoring the notion that a wide range of ideas ought to have a place on the nation's radio airwaves, which are, after all, publicly owned - not the private property of a handful of corporate broadcasters.

One way to call attention to this principle would be for Congress to hold hearings, calling the AM radio potentates on the carpet to explain to the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet why their medium has become so one-sided in most communities.

We also invite the Federal Communications Commission to investigate the problem in Toledo because this city is a case in point. Right-wing talkers on local stations have the last broadcast word on virtually any topic of public import. Divergent opinions are not only scorned, they're mostly not even heard.

This imbalance, conservatives claim, is simply because no one wants to hear liberal talk radio. But the truth is that opposing opinions have been pushed out as radio conglomerates obtained a stranglehold on scarce broadcast licenses.

To put a fine point on it, anyone can start a newspaper - no government license required. But AM broadcast licenses are all taken because of frequency interference issues, so no one need even apply.

That paradigm may change with the up and coming advent of Internet radio, streamed to homes and motor vehicles. But in the meantime, the public interest must not be sacrificed to narrow economic special interest.

The Fairness Doctrine was established by the Federal Communications Commission in 1949 to make sure that the broadcast airwaves, considered a public trust granted to licensees, carried competing opinions on important issues. The need to mandate fairness was based in part, on the scarcity of radio and television stations. At that time there were fewer than 3,000 radio and 100 TV stations nationwide.

But by the 1980s, there were more than 10,000 radio and 1,400 TV stations, and cable television was opening the possibility of a seemingly unlimited number of TV outlets, all of which suggested to some that the public no longer needed protection from narrow propaganda.

More important, Ronald Reagan was in the White House and his FCC chairmen, first Mark Fowler and then Dennis Patrick, opposed the doctrine. When two federal judges - Reagan appointees Robert Bork and Antonin Scalia - ruled that the doctrine was not a statutory obligation, Mr. Patrick repealed it in 1989.

While only one station's license was ever revoked under the Fairness Doctrine, since it was repealed there has been a steady increase in the dominance of conservative talk radio on stations across the country.

And, now, whenever someone bemoans the lack of liberal voices, conservative politicians and talk-show hosts scream that liberals are trying to silence Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Michael Savage and others of their ilk by making broadcast companies choose either to air liberal shows nobody wants to listen to or broadcast fewer conservative talkers.

But no one we're aware of is demanding that right-wingers be kicked off the radio, or that stations become bland, ideological eunuchs. The issue is adding liberal commentators so there is some balance.

The argument that liberal shows aren't as interesting or profitable to station owners is essentially a bogus one. Liberal bloviators have the potential to be just as obnoxious, narrow, condescending, and self-aggrandizing as the right-wing windbags. And left-leaning personalities such as Rachel Maddow, Ed Schultz, Thom Hartmann, and Stephanie Miller all have loyal audiences. Mr. Hartmann's show, for example, boasts higher ratings than Rush Limbaugh in the Seattle and Portland markets and beats Bill O'Reilly 2 to 1 in Los Angeles.

But, in most communities, they have little opportunity to be heard on AM radio, which has come to be dominated more and more by a small number of large broadcast companies. For example, Mr. Schultz has no radio outlet in Toledo, Pittsburgh, or Philadelphia.

According to a report from the Pew Research Center, in 2006 Clear Channel owned 1,190 radio stations, nearly four times as many as the next largest company, Cumulus Broadcasting, which owned 303. Along with Citadel Broadcasting, the number-three broadcast company at 225 stations, the trio owned more stations than the next 17 companies combined.

It is this concentration of ownership that is really at the center of the problem. He who controls the broadcast licenses controls the content of what goes out over the air, and any notion of a "public trust" be damned.

What could be more characteristic of a totalitarian state than limiting information to a narrow range of options? Democracy's very survival depends on a public that is well-informed, sometimes whether they wish to be or not.

It's time for Congress to ask why the AM airwaves continue to be dominated by a narrow viewpoint and what effect that has on issues of public concern. And if broadcasters do not willingly provide listeners the range of opinions they need to figure out where they stand on these issues, perhaps it is time for the FCC to require that they fulfill the public trust.



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