Dave Neiwart has an interesting piece up at Crooks and Liars today about why some kind of Fairness Doctrine is necessary to “level the playing field” in talk radio where conservatives dominate.
His thesis is not that no one wants to listen to liberals on the radio, it’s that conservatives own the communications companies that program conservative talk and freeze out liberals for ideological reasons. (Bill Press said something similar last week.)
The core problem is ownership: Radio station ownership in the past twenty years has been decidedly conservative. And anyone who’s worked in media can tell you that ownership sets the tone and direction of what you do. After the Fairness Doctrine was removed, these wealthy right-wing owners effectively proved right one of the fears that drove the creation of the Fairness Doctrine in the first place: That the wealthy can and will dominate the political conversation on the public airwaves by simply buying up all the available space. Since the wealthy in this country are overwhelmingly conservative, the end result was not only predictable, it was in fact predicted.
Liberal radio has withered on the vine not for the lack of demand, but for the lack of ownership dedicated to nurturing talent, promoting the product, and creating local outlets as well as national markets. Still, one of the right’s favorite myths about the Fairness Doctrine has been that these stations failed because no one wanted to listen, as in this Fox report (video above):
But Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe said radio programming should be based on what brings in listeners and advertisers.
“I can’t think of anything worse than to have government in a position to dictate the content of information going over public radio,” said Inhofe, a Republican. “The whole idea is that it has to be market driven. We have a lot of progressive or liberal radio shows but nobody listens to them and every time one tries to get on, they are not successful.”
On the contrary, as Bill Press observes:
Unfortunately, what’s happening in Washington reflects what has happened in one city after another across the country. In Miami, Clear Channel recently dumped progressive talk for sports: Clear Channel stations made the same move in San Diego and Cincinnati. Sacramento abandoned progressive talk for gospel music. In fact, according to a study released by the Center for American Progress and Free Press, there are nine hours of conservative talk for every one hour of progressive talk.
In fact, the only reason there’s not more competition on American airwaves is that the handful of companies that own most radio stations do everything they can to block it. In many markets — witness Philadelphia, Boston, Providence and Houston — they join in providing no outlet for progressive talk. In others, as in Washington, they limit it to a weak signal, spend zero dollars on promotion and soon pull the plug.
Companies are given a license to operate public airwaves — free! — in order to make a profit, yes, but also, according to the terms of their FCC license, “to operate in the public interest and to afford reasonable opportunity for the discussion of conflicting views of issues of public importance.” Stations are not operating in the public interest when they offer only conservative talk.
For years, the Fairness Doctrine prevented such abuse by requiring licensed stations to carry a mix of opinion. However, under pressure from conservatives, President Ronald Reagan’s Federal Communications Commission canceled the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, insisting that in a free market, stations would automatically offer a balance in programming.
That experiment has failed. There is no free market in talk radio today, only an exclusive, tightly held, conservative media conspiracy. The few holders of broadcast licenses have made it clear they will not, on their own, serve the general public. Maybe it’s time to bring back the Fairness Doctrine — and bring competition back to talk radio in Washington and elsewhere.
First, it is apparent that liberals don’t get out much - at least enough to talk to a real live businessman. The idea that an executive at Clear Channel or some other giant corporation would deliberately avoid programming that would make money is so stupid as to be beyond belief. Those men and women are in no position to allow their personal politics to color decisions that could cost their company millions of dollars in revenue.
I do not think it necessarily because there is no market for liberal talk. Neiwart makes the point that even in liberal bastions like Seattle and San Francisco, conservative talk reigns. The clue is staring Press and Neiwart right in the face but they are refusing (or are too blinded by their own rigid ideological framwork) to see it.
Radio stations want to make money.
Ooops. There I go, I said it. Replacing programming that wasn’t making any money with programming that will (or at least make more than liberal talk) doesn’t seem to enter into these gentleman’s heads. Jesus, even Press mentioned a “conservative conspiracy.” What a dolt.
At bottom, we are not talking about politics or ideology. We are talking about entertainment - “the boredom killing business” as Cheyevsky’s Arthur Beale so presciently put it. Neiwart and Press do not have one shred of evidence that liberal talk radio is not doing well because it is being stifled by mean, greedy, conservative owners. They are positing a complex rationale for something that has an extremely simple explanation; conservative talk jocks who are successful are entertaining people enough that they tune in for the yucks as well as the rants.
Neiwart dismisses this explanation out of hand - and reveals a towering ignorance about the radio business to boot:
What Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity have been telling their audiences is that any talk about the Fairness Doctrine is actually about trying to “silence” them. But of course, no one’s interested in “silencing” anyone on the right: all we’re talking about is creating a level playing field on the public airwaves so that a broad range of viewpoints can be heard instead of just one narrow bandwidth of ideology. This notion, naturally, is what they fear most, since their ideas don’t compete well outside the vacuum they’ve created.
Ideas that don’t “compete well?” This is somewhat contradictory to his thesis in that conservative talk blows away the competition in every single city where they come head to head. And please, we are all grown ups here, Dave. Your panacea of dealing with diversity in ownership is one thing (something I am sure I could support if it were sufficiently free market oriented). But do you really believe your ideological cohorts in politics aren’t extremely interested in getting Rush Limbaugh off the air? Or, more to the point, making it impossible for a radio station to program talk shows it wants to rather than being forced to put some spitting, ranting lefty on for 3 hours after Limbaugh goes off the air? Your playmates on Capitol Hill will honor the first amendment in the breach. They aren’t quite the stickler you are for that “Congress shall make no law” stuff.
I cannot imagine Bill Press being as entertaining as the most dullard conservative talk show host I’ve heard (and I’ve been on the radio enough to have heard plenty). He’s not even entertaining on CNN in the few minutes he has to spout. And that’s the nub of the matter here - entertainment. People turn on radio not to weigh the heavy issues of the day with some sonorous, monotoned stuffed shirt like Bill Press. They want fun! They want mayhem! Or they want someone who will rouse their emotions - something you’ve commented on relentlessly Dave and, to some extent I agree. Bill Press is as entertaining as a ham sandwich. I say anyone who listened to him on the radio was a masochist.
I don’t know what the answer is, as far as getting more entertaining liberal radio hosts. Maybe they should read some joke books. Maybe they should learn how to interview a guest. Hugh Hewitt is a master interviewer and raconteur. He’s a conservative with a national audience but he’s hardly a flame thrower. What he has is empathy for his guests and the skills to bring out the interesting tidbits - a Larry King without the moronic celebrities. What’s her name Maddow is a good interviewer. She will get better. Olbermann is a clown but his secret is that - gasp! - he’s entertaining. I don’t know too many liberals who listen to Michael Savage - a true hater of the right. But I know plenty of liberals who listen to Rush Limbaugh just as I know conservatives who watch Olbermann.
It’s not a conspiracy. It’s show biz. And if Neiwart and Press don’t understand this - if they’re friends on the Hill don’t get it either, then the chances of some kind of fairness doctrine being reimposed are pretty good. This would be a shame because it will kill talk radio thus making the need for it obsolete. And radio will once again get very boring and vanilla.
The Fairness Doctine supporters may as well be advocating the battle cry “Bring back the Top 40 countdown!”