What Conspiracy? Talk Radio's Roar, From Right & Left
Bill Press is a smart and thoughtful liberal who has had a long and successful career in the TV and radio punditry biz. Yet there he was in Sunday's Post bemoaning the loss of "Obama 1260," the left-leaning Washington talk radio station that morphed into an all-financial advice outlet this week.
The way Press tells it, the loss of that format on WWRC, which had so few listeners it sometimes didn't register at all in the Arbitron ratings, amounts to an unfair allocation of the public airwaves, even a conspiracy to silence voices from the left.
Press is so exercised about this--his syndicated show was, after all, the morning drivetime programming on the station--that he's even calling for the return of the Fairness Doctrine, the long-discarded regulatory scheme by which the federal government prevented radio and TV stations from airing much in the way of controversial political programming.
Despite the passionate desire of some Democrats to see the likes of Rush Limbaugh silenced through regulatory trickery, the fact is that no one is going to restore a set of rules that made no sense when they were erased in 1987 and would be downright absurd in the digital age. More on that in a moment, but first, just a couple of facts:
Much as Press may lament the loss of his Washington outlet, it's simply not even close to true that, as he puts it, with the demise of Obama 1260, "our nation's capital, where Democrats control the House, the Senate and the White House, and where Democrats outnumber Republicans 10 to one, will have no progressive voices on the air."
Yes, the #8-rated station in the market, WMAL (630 AM), airs non-stop conservative talk hosts of the Limbaugh/Sean Hannity/Mark Levin ilk. And another right-wing talk station, WTNT (570 AM), the corporate sister of Obama 1260, will remain on the air despite scoring ratings every bit as anemic as the liberal talkers received.
But Press conveniently left out a plethora of liberal talkers heard every day in this market, from the market's #1 station, WHUR (96.3 FM), which features the Michael Baisden Show, which was a nonstop Obama campaign machine throughout the fall, to the #3 station in the market, Majic 102.3, where the morning host is Tom Joyner, a reliably liberal voice whose lovesong to Obama is currently featured on the station's home page. The liberal lineup includes another all-talk station, WOL (1450 AM), where hosts such as Joe Madison and Al Sharpton dish out just as partisan and powerful a menu of provocative talk as do the yakkers of the right.
Why didn't Press include any of these shows or stations in his rant against the purported domination of the airwaves by conservative voices? Might it be because all of the above hosts are black and their shows air on stations that are black-run and oriented toward a black audience? Blacks are the most devoted radio listeners in this or any other U.S. market. Why are they ignored in the liberal argument that radio is an all-right-wing zone?
But liberal voices on the radio in Washington are not limited to what the industry calls "urban" radio. Pacifica's WPFW (89.3 FM) offers the daily "Democracy Now!" news and commentary program, hosted by Amy Goodman, one of the country's leading left-wing voices, as well as at least five other hours a day of news and talk from a left, and often radical left, perspective. Then there's public radio: Although National Public Radio in recent years has made a concerted and generally successful effort to include more conservative voices in its commentaries and other programming, the fact remains that its audience skews liberal, and that colors many of the call-in and other talk shows on public radio.
As I've argued in a piece on Slate.com, there is yet another oasis of liberal, or at least left libertarian, expression on the radio, and that is the shock jocks and morning zoo shows that are generally not thought of as political programming, but which nonetheless consist of hours and hours of rants on behalf of civil liberties, sexual freedom, and the rights of the little guy against the nation's big corporations and institutions.
So, do Press and like-minded listeners really want a return to the Fairness Doctrine, or are they just jealous that Limbaugh and a couple of other conservative talkers continue to draw strong ratings even as most of the old media lose audience to newfangled communications streams?
Perhaps Press is merely frustrated by the low ratings numbers he and his colleagues draw. Nobody wants to go back to the days when the FCC mandated how and when "opposing voices" might get their moment on the air ("Yes, sir, we'd be glad to put that on the air; would you prefer 4 a.m. on Sunday, or 3 a.m. on Monday?") And nobody wants to return to the bland tripe that aired on most talk stations before the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine opened the airwaves to all voices.
But in the end, the main reason there will be no new Fairness Doctrine is that time and technology have left the old concept of talk radio in the dust. On the Internet, a cacophony of voices ring out, most of them reaching hardly anyone, and nearly all of them being heard only by like-minded people. The real information problem our society faces has nothing to do with one perspective being drowned out by another; rather, our deepening media problem is that we are cleaving into two societies, each with its own, separate version of the truth, each startlingly segregated from the other.
The glory of the new media era is that anyone and everyone can sing out their message. The flip side of that democratic blossoming of voices is that without the scarcity of outlets that once forced us all to share the same information, we can and do drift off into separate realities. Drowning in an ocean of digitalia, we see and hear each other less than ever before.
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