Friday, December 06, 2002

What's wrong with talk radio? Onetime Boston City Council candidate Anthony Schinella, now a reporter with Boston Herald publisher Pat Purcell's Community Newspaper chain, has written a worthwhile column on the demise of talk radio. (Inexplicably, his byline got dumped, although maybe it will be restored by the time you read it.)

Schinella -- a liberal who's hosted a talk show at Tufts's WMFO Radio (91.5 FM), but could never break into commercial radio -- laments the dominance of conservatives on talk radio. The culprit, he argues, is deregulation, which led to the demise of the Fairness Doctrine in the 1980s and the horrendous Telecommunications Act of 1996, which allowed a few megacorporations to gobble up most of the nation's radio stations.

Normally, I'd be the first person to scream "First Amendment!" But broadcasting is, as Schinella points out, different: the reason it was regulated in the first place was that it necessarily involved the government's parceling out a scarce, publicly owned resource -- the airwaves -- to corporations that would then turn around and use that public resource to make a profit. Broadcasting, as Schinella notes, "is a closed market. Companies or audiophiles can't just buy a transmitter and start broadcasting. Well, they can -- but they will quickly find themselves in jail."

In such an environment, it made sense to require broadcasters to offer a variety of views in return for being awarded a license to print money. Unfortunately, that thinking no longer prevails. Free-market ideology rules, even though the nature of the technology makes a true free market impossible.

Schinella also takes on another shibboleth:

Radio programmers say that liberal talk show hosts can't make it because listeners don't want to hear liberals on the radio. But in an area that is dominated by a left-of-center voting population, these comments don't ring true. As well, liberals have never actually been given a fair opportunity to compete in the Boston.

I'll take it one step further. Although there are few examples of successful liberal talk-radio hosts in commercial radio, they have done quite well in public radio -- which is, after all, essentially a privatized system dependent on ratings, listener donations, and corporate underwriting, and is thus at least as sensitive to market pressures as commercial radio. Centrist and liberal-leaning shows such as The Connection and On Point, on WBUR Radio (90.9 FM), have done quite well, as has the nationally broadcast Talk of the Nation.

Indeed, former Connection host Christopher Lydon was among the most popular talk hosts in Boston when he got dumped nearly two years ago in the midst of an incredibly ugly contract dispute. The fact that he was unable to work out a deal with any of the city's commercial stations speaks volumes about their priorities -- not so much to keep liberals off the air, I would contend, as to maximize profits with cheap, lowest-common-denominator programming.

Unfortunately, deregulation continues apace. Paul Krugman has a good column in today's New York Times on the deregulatory zeal of FCC chairman Michael Powell. And the Center for Digital Democracy has an excellent guide to what's at stake.

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