Last week, the Center for American Progress released a study that confirmed what many of us already knew: the nationâ€™s radio airwaves are dominated by conservative talk. According to the study, 91% of the Americaâ€™s news/talk radio programming is comprised of conservatives. As of Spring 2007, 2570 hours of conservative talk are offered per week in comparison to 254 hours of progressive talk. A separate analysis of the top ten radio markets revealed that 76% of the programming is conservative and only 24% is progressive. In response to this staggering imbalance, many people have called for a revival of the Fairness Doctrine, a federal policy that forced broadcasters to allow equal broadcasting time to opposing views.
Established in 1940, the Fairness Doctrine required government regulation in order to ensure that broadcast companies, of which there were only three, operated in the public interest by adequately informing citizens of important news. The doctrine, which had been in place since the establishment of the FCC, was vetoed by Ronald Reagan in 1987 when Congress attempted to mandate it. Soon after, Right-wing demagogue Rush Limbaugh began to syndicate his radio show in unprecedented fashion, leading the charge toward a conservative media revolution that has overdetermined American politics and left few progressive bodies standing.
Of course, pundits on the Right insist that this spike is due to the demands of the so-called Free Market. Observers like National Reviewâ€™s Rich Lowry argue that conservative radio is ubiquitous simply because the American people want to hear Right-wing voices more than anyone elseâ€™s. Unfortunately, the numbers say otherwise: 56 percent of the American public and 53 percent of regular talk show listeners identify as liberal or moderate. Why wouldnâ€™t they want radio options that reflect their political orientations?
Not coincidentally, the rise in conservative radio has been paralleled by an equally sharp drop in local ownership over the past twenty years. Since the 1980s, the number of large media companies has shrunk from over fifty to lesser than ten. At the same time, thanks to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, locally owned networks have been swallowed up by companies like Clear Channel, which owns more than 1,200 radio stations around the country. This reorganization of ownership has rendered the market anything but free. In addition to cutting jobs and wages, the consolidation of media outlets has devoured small companies and eliminated ownership opportunities for women and people of color. Why does this matter? According to the Center for American Progress study, locally owned companies, as well as those owned by women and people of color, are considerably more likely to provide non-conservative programming.
Simply put, conservative radio dominates because American people donâ€™t have a choice.
Although the Fairness Doctrine remains our best option for sustaining any semblance of media democracy, it is not without its limitations and shortcomings. By legislating our demands for equal time for the â€œother side,â€ we reify a liberal/conservative binary that effectively obscures the existence of perspectives that fall outside of that shortsighted dichotomy. Also, by intervening in the programming decisions of corporatized radio outlets, we fail to address the more profound structural problems that accompany neo-liberal globalization. Nevertheless, the Fairness Doctrine will provide us with a much-needed respite from the conservative media assault that has undermined democratic discourse and social justice.