There is no dispute that conservatives own talk radio. The report released today by liberal-leaning Center for American Progress and Free Press, a media reform group, states in its opening paragraphs that there are over 10 hours of conservative talk for every one hour liberal talk on the 257 talk radio stations operated by the five largest station owners.
Where this report entitled "The Structural Imbalance of Political Talk" differs from other studies of political talk radio (Democracy Radio revealed the same 10 to 1 conservative advantage in report released three years ago) is that it attempts to identify why the imbalance exists and what can be done to correct it.
And while right wing supporters of the status quo have stacked their defense on a goal line stand against the reenactment of the Fairness Doctrine, the CAP/FD report contends that a new Fairness Doctrine is not necessary. The report contends that political imbalance can be addressed by restoring the ownership caps, license renewal, and localism standards that were discarded in the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
It looks a like libs are attempting an end run.
The CAP/FD report concludes with the following statement
The gap between
conservative and progressive talk radio is
the result of multiple structural problems
in the U.S. regulatory system, particularly
the complete breakdown of the public
trustee concept of broadcast, the elimination
of clear public interest requirements
for broadcasting, and the relaxation of
ownership rules including the requirement
of local participation in management.
Needless to say conservatives are going nuts. I received at least a dozen "Google Alerts" this morning – all from right wing bloggers. Here in one diatribe and here’s another.
While anyone with a radio in his car knows that conservatives dominate the talk format, we found the methodology used in the CAP/FD report a little weak. For one thing, they only surveyed stations owned by the top five stations groups – Clear Channel, CBS, Citadel, Cumulus, and Salem. Secondly, they did not factor in the ratings or reach of the stations. So weak lib stations like WDTW in Detroit and WWRC in Washington were compared equally with 50,000-watt blowtorch stations WJR and WMAL. If ratings and reach were taken into consideration conservative talker’s advantage over lib talkers increases to 13 to 1.
However, the strength of the CAP/FP report is not their analysis of the gross imbalance in political talk radio, but in their attempt to demystify why this imbalance exists. In doing so, the report takes issue with the two reasons pundits have used to explain why talk radio skews so dominantly to the right -- the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine and
the consideration of market demands.
The report states:
Both of these arguments are inadequate
and both lead to specific policy recommendations
that are insufficient for correcting
the structural imbalance in talk
It essentially concludes that the Fairness Doctrine is an irrelevant issue. It notes that the FD was "never formally repealed" and that Court rulings authorizing its legality remain in place. Furthermore, the FCC maintains the authority to enforce equal time rules in political campaigns and Section 315 of Communications Act of 1934 gives them additional authority to regulate content.
Section 315 of the Communications
Act still requires commercial broadcasters
"to operate in the public interest and
to afford reasonable opportunity for the
discussion of conflicting views of issues
of public importance."
The report also challenges the often stated mantra that radio station owners are just responding to market demands. It takes the position that the convenience of syndication, cutting back local talk, national ad sales strategies, and insensitivity to local market needs are the factors that influence the programming strategies of the large station owners.
When 91 percent of the talk radio programming
broadcast each weekday is
solely conservative—despite a diversity of
opinions among radio audiences and the
proven success of progressive shows—the
market solution has clearly failed to meet
audience demand. Even greater deregulation
and consolidation of radio station
ownership is therefore not likely to meet
audience desires or serve the public interest
in any meaningful way.
The report underscores this point by demonstrating that stations owned by local or small group owners, minority-groups, and women are more likely to offer some balance in the presentation of political talk than large group owners like Clear Channel and Citadel.
It goes on propose three steps that need to be taken to correct the gross imbalance in political talk programming:
1. Restore local and national caps on the ownership of commercial radio stations
Noting that since the radical changes put in place by Telecommunications Act of 1996, there has been 34% decline in station owners and 11.7% decline in minority owners, the report proposes that current rules which allow a station group to own up to eight stations in some markets must be changed:
We recommend that radio ownership
caps be revised as follows:
National radio ownership by any one
entity should not exceed 5 percent
of the total number of AM and FM
In terms of local ownership, no one
entity should control more than
10 percent of the total commercial
radio stations in a given market, or
specifically, more than:
– Four commercial stations in large
markets (a radio market with 45 or
more commercial radio stations).
– Three stations in mid-markets (between
30 and 44 total commercial
These changes still allow a station group to own more stations that they could before the enactment of the new rules ten years ago.
2. Ensure greater local accountability over radio licensing
The current rules extended license renewal from three to nine years and despite assurances that there would be spot audits and other controls, the vast majority of renewals are completed by simply filing out a postcard. The report proposes the following changes including the restoration of the three-year license renewal schedule:
We recommend the following steps the
FCC should take to ensure local needs
are being met:
Require radio broadcast licensees to
regularly show that they are operating
on behalf of the public interest and
provide public documentation and
viewing of how they are meeting these
Demand that the radio broadcast
licensee announce when its license is
about to expire and demonstrate how
the public can participate in the process
to determine whether the license
should be extended. In addition, the
FCC should be required to maintain
a website to conduct on-line discussions
and facilitate interaction with the
public about licensee conduct.
3. Require commercial owners who fail to abide by enforceable public interest obligations to pay a fee to support public broadcasting
As we know, radio station owners often resist even the modest level of regulation that they have faced during the current deregulatory period. For example, consider the payola scandals in New York. The report proposes consequences for station owners who resist the new regulatory requirements.
It proposes that station owners who do not comply with the new rules be assessed with a "spectrum use fee" of one percent for small markets and five percent for the largest markets.
If commercial radio broadcasters are
unwilling to abide by these regulatory
standards or the FCC is unable to effectively
regulate in the public interest,
a spectrum use fee should be levied on
owners to directly support local, regional,
and national public broadcasting.
The conclusion of the report is that these changes, will not only lead to a more level playing field in political talk radio but also assure that localism is returned to airwaves.