Friday, June 27, 2008

Fairness, schmairness and panic in the streets

Two words strike absolute fear into the hearts of right-wingers across the landscape. Two words that make crybaby conservatives burst into tears. Suffice it to say, it scares them more than having the depressing John McCain as their favorite party's nominee.

Those two words:Yep, you guessed it - the Fairness Doctrine.

So, what is this "Fairness Doctrine?" It was enacted in 1949, and mandated that various viewpoints be represented on the airwaves. Sounded okay in theory, but as time progressed, it became clear that you can't lead a horse to water and expect it to drink. In short, you can't force broadcasters to do quality radio.

Back in the old days, there weren't that many talk radio stations. AM in those days was the main band - most stations played music or entertainment programming. There were the so-called 'full-service' stations that were big on news and information. There were also the occasional partisan and confrontational talk show hosts such as Father Charles Coughlin and Joe Pyne. And even the Top 40 hits stations had hourly news updates. There were even a few scattered talk stations, with some featuring a balance of partisan right-and-left talkers. But talk radio didn't start becoming popular until the higher-fidelity FM band exploded in popularity in the late 1970s and early 1980s and started putting AM music stations out of contention. With no other place to go, many of them, even the big Top 40 stations like WABC and WLS, switched to talk. Most talk radio was local at the time. The most common syndicated fare in those days was late night fare such as Larry King and Talknet. Most of it was rather non-controversial. Overly partisan talkers like Rush Limbaugh easily got around the doctrine by claiming they were doing an 'entertainment' show.

But with the Reagan Administration forcing the end of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, the increased use of satellite transmission, the increased abundence of talk stations and the rising costs of using local talk show talent, there was a demand for more syndicated programming. ABC Limbaugh out of Sacramento to come to New York, with the intent of launching a daytime ultraconservative talk show to air across the country. It got off to a slow start, on some rather small stations, but eventually wound up gathering steam and even snared some big-signalled stations. In the world of radio, imitation is the most sincere form of flattery. Everyone copies off each other. As a result, Rush clones popped up all over the dial. First came G. Gordon Liddy. Then came the guys like Sean Hannity and Michael Savage. Then, seemingly every local right-wing radio hack in America wanted his/her own syndicated talk show. And the station owners and program syndicators loved it. Their rationale was, if Limbaugh was successful, then perhaps their low-hanging fruit would be as well. It wasn't politically-motivated as it was lazy radio-related. Conservotalk was the radio format flavor of the month.

Conservotalk grew so much that radio stations even ditched, neutered or converted their liberal talkers. They wanted an entire schedule of Limbaugh clones. Soon, the talk radio landscape was chock full of empty suits shouting the same GOP-generated talking points. They also claimed that they were the antidote to the so-called 'liberal media,' which in their minds consisted of the broadcast networks, CNN and the print media. Of course, they offered no real proof of this, but as the saying goes, tell a lie long enough and it will become truth in their eyes. After all, as I was watching all those TV news channels back in 2004 and seeing how much face time the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth were getting (even though they were spouting obvious lies), I couldn't help to think how 'liberal' the media was (sarcasm off).

With the Democrats in control of both houses of Congress, there has obviously been talk of reviving the Fairness Doctrine. And the mere thought has made right-wingers crap their drawers in fear. Some Republican politicians have even tried to draw up support for an outright ban on a return of the doctrine, while Democratic counterparts have threatened to bring the issue to the table once and for all. The biggest thud occurred earlier this week when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) announced that she indeed supported the revival of the fairness doctrine, in effect, putting the brakes on the wall-to-wall right-wing propaganda cluttering the AM landscape by balancing out ideas and opinions on the nation's airwaves. Of course, the right-wingers went completely apeshit. They derided it as the "Hush Rush" bill. How dare the Democrats threaten their gravy train! The nerve!

Ehh, not so fast. Luckily for them, the whole Fairness Doctrine thing is a red herring, likely to scare the hell out of nervous wingnuts. It's not on the table now. Though Pelosi supports it, she's got more important things on her plate. She won't call for a vote on the issue any time soon. So breathe easy - the Fairness Doctrine isn't coming back. As I said the other day, you can't put the shit back in the horse.

The overabundance of wingnuts on the radio is overstated, in my opinion. Combining all of the many, many stations airing hundreds of different Rush clones, the listening numbers still suck. Limbaugh probably gets no more than 5% of the national listening audience on average, and I'm probably being generous here. Everyone else below him gets far less. So, needless to say, it's a rather small and rather loud echo chamber. Most people really don't give a shit about screaming political talk, whether it be from the right or the left. They'd rather have "Everything that Rocks" and "Your Twelve in a Row Variety Station"on the FM side. That's the fact. Talk radio only preaches to the flock. And, truth be told, that flock is getting pretty long in the tooth. Listeners to conservotalk are, on average, quite a bit older than many advertisers like. In short, they don't trust anyone over 54. That's the big problem on the horizon for the format, and one many people don't talk about. Wonder why you don't hear Frank Sinatra or Elvis Presley on the radio anymore? Their fans are too old in the eyes of the advertising world. Same goes for conservotalk. Eventually, the audience will become too old for advertisers to care about. And once they go, the format's gonna haves some serious problems. Now, I'm not denigrating the older generation. Just simply stating a reality in the business. Radio has to figure out a way of staying relevant with the listener demographics that advertisers covet.

The recent doctrine debate even reached as far as the presidential race. Presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama does not favor it's resurgance. "He considers this debate to be a distraction from the conversation we should be having about opening up the airwaves and modern communications to as many diverse viewpoints as possible," press secretary Michael Ortiz said. "That is why Sen. Obama supports media-ownership caps, network neutrality, public broadcasting, as well as increasing minority ownership of broadcasting and print outlets."

And once again, Obama comes out as the one person making sense here. Since the demise of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, the radio landscape has changed drastically. And ideologically balancing out the airwaves in this day and age is easier said than done. The root of the problem these days is the corporate monopolization of the radio dial. The big radio conglomerates own stations they don't even care about owning, and often use them to dump cheap syndicated programming on, mostly from the low-hanging fruit of conservative talk radio. It's inexpensive, proven, easy to automate and has something resembling an audience. What would happen if some smaller group owned that very frequency and decided to put on something they really cared about, rather than the conglomerate's dumping of content filler on an otherwise unimportant spot on the dial?

The recent unraveling of some of the biggest conglomerates, such as Clear Channel and CBS, was a step in the right direction. Little by little, we're starting to see smaller, regional groups step up to buy cast-off broadcast properties. In television, FOX is even selling off some of their stations.

Granted, many of the big buyers are hedge funds and venture capitalists, who care only about achieving the bottom line. But this may also bring about even further change. Technology and the way we access media is changing rapidly. Portable audio players such as the iPod allow us to listen to whatever we want, instead of what Clear Channel and the others think we want to listen to. A segment of soon-to-be abandoned television spectrum was snapped up earlier this year by wireless communications companies like AT&T and Verizon. The much-ballyhooed WiMax wireless internet technology could make the web available everywhere for a reasonable price. And just the other day, Chrysler announced that they would make internet access available in their 2009 models. While the thought of someone surfing the web while driving is a bit frightening, this does open the door to the advent of streaming audio content on the road, where many people listen to the radio. So, instead of listening to conservative blowhards read their daily heaping of think tank-generated show prep, one could dial in whatever they want. Want Air America? It's only a click away. Real cutting-edge radio like Radio Paradise? No prob.

If the car makers can integrate this stuff easily into car radio receivers, it'll be a game changer. And it could signal a wake-up call a rather lazy and indifferent radio industry, who are too scared to break the mold and do something totally different that could actually interest listeners.

So, no Fairness Doctrine on the horizon? That's okay, we don't really need it. But I don't mind them talking about it, since it so annoys and terrifies right-wingers.


Jill said...

Now why on earth would anyone want Air America, with the lameass lineup it has now (except Hartmann and Maddow). What it DOES mean is that those of us in the NY area would get Hartmann back again, and it means that whatever good stuff Sam Seder and Marc Maron are doing would be available in your car.

Is it alone reason to buy a Chrysler? Not unless they bring back the original Dodge Dart with a Slant-4 to replace the old slant-6. And while you're at it, why not bring back the push-button automatic?

Brady Bonk said...

That about sums it up. A perfect post, LTR. It's the post I've been writing in my head for months but haven't committed to bytes yet.

NYLefty said...

"Now why on earth would anyone want Air America, with the lameass lineup it has now (except Hartmann and Maddow)."

I'd want Air America for Hartmann, Maddow, Ring of Fire, and Ron Kuby -- who I much prefer to the angry, negative, mean-spirited Randi Rhodes.

Ohio Media Watch said...

Just a correction:

"ABC Limbaugh out of Sacramento to come to New York,"

I assume the word "hired" was in there, but that's not accurate... former ABC Radio executive Ed McLaughlin hired Rush after starting his own company, EFM Media.

WABC in New York City was involved as Rush's NYC broadcast home. He initially did a local show on WABC, and the syndicated show did
not air on that station at first.

Eventually, the syndicated show was brought onto WABC, and he no longer did the local WABC-only show.

ABC/WABC did not "hire Rush"...aside from the brief period he did the local show, which I've heard was basically a favor to former ABC Radio head Mr. McLaughlin.

Many years later, EFM Media was swallowed by Jacor/Clear Channel/Premiere/whatever division it was at the time. EFM also syndicated KGO/San Francisco's Dr. Dean Edell, who came into the Premiere stable with the Rush deal.

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