Monday, December 17, 2012
Saturday, December 08, 2012
Conservative talk radio has worked itself into a tizzy lately over the rumored revival of the Fairness Doctrine -- the FCC policy that sought to enforce balanced discussion on the nation's airwaves.
As the founding president of Air America Radio, I believe that for the last eight years Rush Limbaugh and his ilk have been cheerleaders for everything wrong with our economic, foreign and domestic policies. But when it comes to the Fairness Doctrine, I couldn't agree with them more. The Fairness Doctrine is an anachronistic policy that, with the abundance of choices on radio today, is entirely unnecessary.
Instituted in 1949, the Fairness Doctrine obligated stations to "afford reasonable opportunity" for opposing views on topics of "public importance." At the time, most cities outside of New York, Chicago and Los Angeles had only a few stations. AM radio was in everyone's car and home, but there were just three or four stations per market. FM radio was still a quarter of a century away from commercial success.
Policy makers who introduced the Fairness Doctrine were worried that crafty special interests could overwhelm the airwaves with one-sided propaganda and tilt elections, sway public sentiment or foment civil unrest. Their fears were understandable. Joseph Goebbels effectively used radio in service of the Third Reich.
Contrary to what some people would have us believe today, the Fairness Doctrine was primarily an issue on TV, since radio didn't have much talk. Until the 1970s, AM stations had a steady diet of music with a couple of minutes of news at the top of the hour. But by 1978, music had migrated to FM, leaving AM in a programming lurch. The history of media is replete with new technologies stealing the content of the ones they supplant. Motion pictures killed vaudeville; radio was full of dramas and comedies before Jack Webb and Jack Benny switched to TV. As for AM radio, it was not until Rush found an audience on WABC in New York City in 1988 that the AM operators knew what to do with their once mighty stations.
The conventional wisdom is that Rush's success depended on the 1987 repeal of the Fairness Doctrine. Some say that if he had to make time for opposing opinions, Rush would have flopped. Personally, I think he is most entertaining when he is dismantling opposing arguments. He's successful because he is a superior entertainer.
Rush created the new AM template, and it spread like wildfire. When programmers and sales managers get a whiff of success, it is cloned in every conceivable way until the audience, once grateful for innovation, tunes out.
So why didn't liberal talk radio flourish as well? There are several reasons, none of which has to do with a lack of talent. Bill Maher, Al Franken, Stephanie Miller, David Bender, Janeane Garofalo, Jon Stewart and Rachel Maddow all have the chops.
First, boring hosts made the occasional, unsuccessful foray (sorry, Mario Cuomo). Second, some talented lefties like Mike Malloy were cast into the abyss of right-wing talk radio where they were completely out of place. (Radio is a mood servicing drug; format purity rules.)
Finally, most broadcast owners are conservative. Programs like Rush's have made them rich, so the last thing they want is to mess with success, particularly if it entails airing opinions they don't share. Trust me, it took us years to get them to play rock 'n' roll.
No one tried a national, 24-hour liberal station before Air America Radio. When we founded Air America, we aimed to establish a talk network that lived at the intersection of politics and entertainment. Of course, we were motivated by our political leanings. But as a lifelong broadcaster, I was certain that at least half the American audience was underserved by conservative talk radio. Here was an opportunity to capture listeners turned off by the likes of, say, Sean Hannity. The business opportunity was enticing.
It never occurred to me to argue for reimposing the Fairness Doctrine. Instead, I sought to capitalize on the other side of a market the right already had built.
When conservative talking heads wave a red flag about the possible revival of the Fairness Doctrine, they know it's a great way to play the victim and rally supporters. But I'll let Rush continue with his self-righteous indignation -- and if I want, I'll tune into Rachel Maddow, or one of the thousands of other voices that populate radio today.
Mr. Sinton was the founding president of Air America Radio.