I remember listening intently to John McCain addressing the movers and shakers of the talk radio industry a few years ago, at the Radio and Records Talk Radio Convention. McCain was introduced and interviewed by Peter Jennings as, “The man who should be the next President of the United States.” McCain took the podium to a roaring chorus of applause from talk’s top programmers and heads of corporate groups. The Senator adjusted the mic, smiled politely and spent the next half-hour telling the political talk elect how consolidation of programming and over saturation of their network talking-heads was a blight on the estate and would eventually lead to talk radio’s downfall. When Mr. McCain was finished, you could have heard a pin drop. He had stood in front of the most powerful men (and yes, they are almost exclusively men) in radio broadcasting, and read them the riot act. I gained a newfound respect for the Senator from Arizona. Here was a man honest enough to tell a room full of broadcasting’s elite political powerbrokers exactly what was on his mind, political capitol be damned. I thought to myself, “I would vote for this man.”
Things didn’t quite shake out for Senator McCain in the election, and now we’re ready for new blood to take the helm in Washington. The country seems to be teetering on the brink of near economic meltdown and we’re entrenched in two wars, yet one of the biggest issues amongst talk programmers and on political talk radio airwaves is the possible reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine by Congress and the new Obama Administration. The Fairness Doctrine, repealed by Ronald Regan in the ’80s, essentially called for broadcasters to air all “contrasting” opinions. Without going into a lot of Washingtonian verbiage, if you have a right or left-leaning talk host, the legislation calls for you to “give” equal airtime to the opposing point of view.
Following the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, talk radio flourished on the AM dial. In many ways, it was the salvation of AM radio. AM was dying on the vine in the ’80s, with the move of virtually all music programming to AM’s younger FM sibling. Talk radio exploded without the constraint of Washington’s oversight of broadcast content. Hosts like Rush Limbaugh took hold like wildfire and spread across the AM dial from coast to coast. It was just the shot in the arm that heritage and big-stick AM’s needed, and fit right in line with corporate consolidation of the radio industry, spearheaded by the big-business overtures of Regan and Clinton.
The repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in the ’80s wasn’t just the right thing for the business climate; it was the right thing for America. In this reporter’s opinion, the government has no business poking its fingers in the freedom of the press – any press, especially when the freedom to express political opinion is concerned. If Congress or the Executive Branch decides it is within their rights to have oversight and control of media content, this oversight should also include restrictions on print, television, and new media. Why stop with radio? Invoke regulation of print media and new rules regarding op-ed and political endorsements. Rein in Internet political discourse. Impose new limitations on political content for broadcast TV and the networks. Why even stop with political content? Let Washington oversee decisions on all media content. Even though the Fairness Doctrine may have a name that invokes high-browed principals like “fair-play” and “balance,” broadcasters and citizens must do their own due diligence to make doubly sure they are not being swept into the treacherous waters of Orwellian “New Speak.”
Make no mistake, the Fairness Doctrine hasn’t been bandied about by Nancy Pelosi, John Kerry, Jeff Bingaman and other Democratic advocates to return fairness and balance to the airwaves; it is a political tool wielded entirely for the purpose of surgically removing the Democratic Party’s loudest and harshest critics. The Democrats are tired of the daily melee voiced by Limbaugh, Hannity and the other critics of the left on the public airwaves. But this “Fairness” sword cuts both ways: Oversight of the AM radio’s right-wing political monoliths also means oversight of NPR, Air America and independent “progressive” talk outlets.
The Fairness Doctrine isn’t the first American go-round for more government oversight and control of a politically “hostile” media. Even in America’s infancy, our nation’s second President, John Adams, signed into law the controversial “Aliens and Sedition Act.” The law sought to wrestle control over the powerful party-run newspaper’s dissenting opinions, muzzle Adam’s political opponents and deport hostile “aliens,” who the President and the Federalists believed were insurgents in their undeclared war with France. The “Aliens and Sedition Act” is still a historical blight on the administration of one of the most intellectual, respected and balanced founding fathers of the American democratic experiment. Silencing or curbing the press, for dissenting political opinion, domestic security or even “indecency,” should always be viewed with grave suspicion.
As sure as I am in my heart of hearts that a return of the Fairness Doctrine is wrong for America, I also have a still-small place in my heart that believes it might just be what talk radio needs to kick-start its programming and business model. Talk radio, and the entire radio industry, finds itself in a completely different environment from the ’80s and ‘90s. Traditional media in general is facing a competitive onslaught from the Internet and emerging technologies that aims to rewrite how America gets it’s news, opinion and entertainment. Ad dollars are quickly spreading from traditional media to new media and soon to future technology mediums such as wide area wifi broadcasting, a near certainty with the FCC opening up the White Space spectrum. Commercial broadcasters are faced with the need to evolve their product as content providers for new media and/or concentrate on their strengths as local broadcasters instead of existing as merely affiliates in the network supply chain.
There are voices in both media and politics that see the fervor over the reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine as pure vaporware and FUD. Broadcasters are simply playing a game of chicken little, making much ado over faint whispers from a few outspoken members of Congress. Surely the Fairness Doctrine will never again see the light of day! These levelheaded unbelievers may be correct in their assumption that the Fairness Doctrine will never return. Don’t be fooled, something is coming. We may never see a return of the “old” Fairness Doctrine, but new regulations for quotas on local and network content, equal time for dissenting opinions, minority ownership and content are as sure as the sunrise. The writing is on the wall.
The Internet intrusion into listenership and ad dollars has been a blow to broadcasters. Now the economy is taking its toll on revenue, jobs, and as a result, on the creation of new and compelling content which is sorely needed to return listeners to radio. Radio needed to be proactive as content producers with the frontal assault of the Internet and New Media. Instead we withdrew, consolidated and hid behind our fifth-estate walls. Radio’s consolidated double-digit growth shrank, along with its status as a Wall Street darling. The new recession should lead to new innovation; instead radio withdraws once again, with more reductions, consolidation and contractions.
If the market can’t force radio to change and reinvigorate its product, Washington unwittingly can. The government imposition of the Fairness Doctrine is in no way a stimulus plan for radio, but the oversight might just steer broadcasters onto a new course they’ve been afraid to plot for themselves, navigating back to more local content, talent and diversity. I can still hear Senator McCain’s prophetic words on the pitfalls of consolidation ringing in my ears. Maybe the unbridled free rein and lack of corporate oversight of big business really did get us into this mess. It’s just a shame Congress has to trample on the Constitution to “fix” it. Quoting President Adams, “A mob is no less a mob because they are with you.”