Stimulate don’t Legislate the Fairness Doctrine.


The Fairness Doctrine is starting to sound like the roll of one bad penny; it just won’t go away. While many were calling the voices on the right who were warning of the coming legislation of a new Fairness Doctrine pure FUD, it seemed fairly obvious to this broadcaster that the oversight of the new administration of radio content was and is inevitable.

Now Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow has joined the voices of other Democratic lawmakers who have voiced their support for a return of the Fairness Doctrine. The list includes: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Barbara Boxer and Chuck Schumer. Stabenow’s push for a return of the Fairness Doctrine is perhaps the most suspect. Stabenow, just happens to be married to Tom Athens, the co-founder of the defunct liberal talk outlet Democracy Radio and is now the Executive Vice-President of Air America.

What could Athens, or Air America possibly gain from a reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine? Well, the hundreds of radio stations now airing right-wing talk hosts would probably be forced to air “equal and opposing opinions” on their stations. If the station aired four hours of Rush or Hannity, they would have to air four hours of a liberal talker such as Lionel or Thom Hartman, even if the liberal talkers couldn’t garner the rating and income of other right-wing talk show hosts. The stations would be legislated to air “opposing views.” It is quite possible if the Fairness Doctrine was re-imposed, the liberal talk network “Air America” would evolve from a 24-hour talk radio network supplying stations with an entire package of programming, to an ad-hock network supplying “opposing viewpoints” to political talk stations who need to fulfill their Fairness Doctrine obligations to Washington.

Well, needless to say, this would undoubtedly be bad business for the political talk radio stations nationwide. Many would jettison the format entirely, rather than be forced by the government to take programming that a majority of radio managers would deem unprofitable, or the cost to manage the oversight of the legal obligations that a political talk radio station would be required to fulfill under a new Fairness Doctrine policy. In effect, it would almost certainly silence the profitable sector of political talk radio.

I suggested last year that the Fairness Doctrine would never return, and it won’t. At least as something called “The Fairness Doctrine.” This is how I see it shaking out: Congress will hold hearings and the Farness Doctrine will be reborn as a “Localization Doctrine.” Instead of the FCC overseeing political content, Congress will enact a law that will require radio stations to carry a certain amount of local content. This Localization Doctrine will have the same effect as the Fairness Doctrine, limiting the number and hours of network programming a station may carry. Most political talk stations carry a full load of network programming. In most markets, political talk stations may have a live morning news show and the rest of the day is network programming. As much as this new Localization Doctrine would end the right-wing political dynasty of AM talk radio dominance, it would also impose new monetary burdens to music formatted radio stations already suffering from a downturn in this depressed advertising economy.

Talk is an expensive format to run, especially if you’re talking about hiring local talk talent. Most stations, even large market stations owned by one of the mega-radio corporations, will just not be able to handle the debt incurred to hire local talk talent, even if they could find them! Let’s face it; with all of this network programming, the talent pump is very, very dry. AM radio will splinter more and more than likely become the domain of ethnic formats.

But before you run blaming Congress when this happens, radio broadcasters only have themselves to blame. Searching after higher and higher profit margins for shareholders for decades, radio corporations got out of the content business. Programming jobs were (and are continued to be) cut. Voicetracking and network programming replaced the strength of local radio. Good god do I need to go on? Broadcasters know and knew all of this and more. The writing was on the wall for years and now the chickens have indeed come home to roost.

Is there an alternative? Yes. We do need more localism in radio. Broadcasters know it, the government knows it and yes, the listeners know it. But instead of legislating localism, the government should stimulate it. Instead of imposing draconian, outdated, and in my opinion unconstitutional laws to legislate content, give the broadcasters the incentive to localize the content themselves. Broadcasters should be given incentives like tax-breaks for hiring local talent and producing local content, not legislated into doing so. Encouraging local programming from the government level will stimulate job growth in broadcasting, serve the local community and offer more diversity on the radio dial. It’s a win-win situation. But when was the last time Congress enacted a non-partisan solution that would actually help the nations economic bottom line and serve the voters…. I’m stumped.