Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Your Government at Work:
Censoring AM Talk Radio

By James Shott

Older readers will remember the heyday of radio, those days when AM radio
was king, the primary entertainment and information medium. There was no TV, no FM radio, no satellite radio. In those days, there was just AM.

As time passed, television got its start and AM radio’s golden years came to an end. Later, AM faced the further challenge of FM radio, which eventually became the more popular of the two bands, due to superior technical capabilities. As FM radio grew in popularity in the 70s, AM radio’s popularity faded, and nearly died.

There was a huge investment in AM radio by private businesses, many of whom gradually invested in the newer FM technology. But owners didn’t want to just pull the plug on the AM band stations.

Commercial radio stations are successful if their programming attracts listeners in large enough numbers to attract sufficient advertising to pay the bills. Broadcasters experimented with a few new formats on AM, which eventually produced a talk show format that people liked and listened to. AM radio was revived.

Station owners will put any talk program that meets broadcasting standards on the air, as long as it attracts a large enough audience to produce adequate advertising dollars. They don’t care if it’s Rush Limbaugh or Alan Colmes or Bill Bennett or Randi Rhodes, so long as people listen and advertisers buy spots.

Through the years listeners have told station owners through their listening preferences that they like conservative political talk far more than they like liberal political talk, thus conservative shows dominate the medium. This is a choice freely made by listeners in a free and open marketplace.

That may be because more Americans are conservative than liberal; or more conservatives listen to talk radio than liberals; or that conservative programs and hosts are superior to their liberal competitors. However, the listening audience prefers conservative talk programs to their liberal competition, and the “why” doesn’t matter. This should be the end of the discussion, since the issue has been resolved by the consumers of AM radio.

It isn’t.

The people on the short end of the market surveys — liberal Democrats —think it is unfair that they have fewer hours of programming than conservatives, and apparently believe that listeners should not have the programming they have clearly demonstrated they prefer, and some even go so far as to charge that there is some sort of sinister plot by right-wingers.

Unwilling or unable to produce a product that listeners will accept in numbers equal to their competition, they want the government to force balance between hours of conservative talk and hours of liberal talk, and they have chosen to achieve this goal by bringing back the odious governmental control mechanism called, curiously, the “Fairness Doctrine.”

Briefly, the Fairness Doctrine is an outdated (1949) attempt by government to provide balance on public issues in an era when people had far fewer sources for news and information than they have today. The Federal Communications Commission wanted to be sure that broadcasters presented both sides of public interest issues. There may have been justification for this rule in the 50s when there were few cable TV systems, few FM radio stations, no Internet, and fewer print sources. But not today when there are multitudes of news and information sources of all varieties, many of them free for the taking. Anyone who isn’t well informed on important issues these days just isn’t trying.

There is some sympathy in the Congress for reviving the Fairness Doctrine from Senators John Kerry and Dick Durbin and Representatives John Dingell, Dennis Kucinich, and Louise Slaughter. And, in his confirmation hearings Attorney General-designate Eric Holder would not give a straight answer on whether he supports it.

Proponents say this is about fairness, and will try to substantiate that claim by saying that radio airwaves belong to the public and the government has an obligation to see that there is political balance. But commercial broadcasters are private businesses, not government information agents. This is an effort to silence dissenting voices and replace the people’s judgment and free choice with the judgment of the politicians in Washington.

By imposing the Fairness Doctrine on commercial talk radio after the public has made its programming choices, our government is replacing the judgment of listeners with the judgment of Washington politicians.

But Americans can think for themselves; they don’t need a bunch of politicians telling them what they should like or what they can listen to. And more important, the federal government has no business sticking its nose into commercial radio.

By providing people what they want, businesses of all types succeed where their competitors who do not provide customers what they want fail. This is how the free market works. If a successful business model has to be modified because of a government edict to include programming that has proven unsuccessful, AM radio operators can count on advertising income dropping, putting their businesses in jeopardy.

If Big Brother insists on trying to impose “fairness” on AM radio, it had better also get to work on NBC, ABC, CBS, MSNBC, and, of course, National Public Radio.

Cross-posted from Observations

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