Friday, February 13, 2009

Progressive Voices Silenced In Washington

As published in The Washington Post
Sunday, February 8

By: Bill Press

If you’re looking for a break from those conservative voices that dominate talk radio, take time out today to listen to local station Obama 1260 AM.

Providing a welcome relief from the constant Obama-bashing by Rush Limbaugh and others, you’ll hear the progressive voices of Stephanie Miller, Ed Schultz, Lionel – or, during morning drive, my own “Bill Press Show.” Unfortunately, today’s the last day you’ll be able to do so.

As first reported by the Post’s media critic, Howard Kurtz, Dan Snyder’s Red Zebra Broadcasting Company, owner of Obama 1260, has announced plans to jettison all progressive talk and replace it with canned, pre-recorded financial advice programming.

The commercial use of public airwaves is supposed to reflect the local community. But not in Washington. On the AM dial, 630 WMAL features wall-to-wall conservative talk. So do stations 570 WTNT and 1580 WHFS. For the last two years, AM 1260 - even with a weak signal that can not be heard in downtown Washington – was the one exception. No longer. Starting Monday, February 9, our nation’s capitol, where Democrats control the House, Senate, and White House, and where Democrats outnumber Republicans ten to one, will have no progressive voices on the air.

Or maybe one. In order to mollify critics, Red Zebra has said it will add Ed Schultz to its conservative line-up on 570 AM. Which means Shultz will be outgunned in this market by at least 15 conservative talkers: Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Mark Levin, Chris Plante, Michael Smerconish, Michael Savage, Andy Parks, Fred Grandy, Bill Bennett, Monica Crowley, Bill O’Reilly, Dennis Miller, and Lars Larsen. No matter how good Schultz is, that’s not a fair contest – nor a fair use of the public airwaves.

Unfortunately, what’s happening in Washington reflects what’s happened in one city after another across the country. In Miami, Clean Channel recently dumped progressive talk for sports: the same move made by Clear Channel stations 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.

Why? Station owners complain they can’t get good ratings or make any money with progressive talk, but that’s nonsense. In Minnesota, independent owner Janet Robert has operated KTNF AM 950 profitably for five years. Madison’s 92.1 just scored its highest ratings ever. And Portland, Oregon’s KPOJ soared with progressive talk from #23 in market ratings to #1. Nationwide, progressive talkers Randi Rhodes, Ed Schultz and Stephanie Miller have proven that, given a level playing field, they can more than hold their own in ratings – and make money for their stations.

In fact, the only reason there’s not more competition on American airwaves is that the handful of companies which own most radio stations do everything they can to block it. In many markets – witness Philadelphia, Boston, Providence, or Houston – they join in providing no outlet for progressive talk. In others, as in Washington, they limit it to a crappy signal, spend zero dollars on promotion, and soon pull the plug.

In other words, there is no free market in talk radio today. The airwaves have been taken over by an oligopoly offering conservative talk only, which totally contradicts what commercial radio is supposed to offer.

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 Reagan’s FCC cancelled 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.

Bill Press is working on a new book on talk radio.

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