Monday, November 19, 2007

Restoring 'Fairness Doctrine' Ignores Demographic Realities of Talk Radio

Conservatives Have a Near-Monopoly on Talk Radio, But They're Merely Preaching to the Choir: Only 17 Percent of Americans Listen to Talk Radio -- And Those That Do Are Mostly White, Middle-Aged, Conservative, Republican Males

Talk radio has long been dominated by right-wing hosts. It wasn't always that way: Until the Federal Communications Commission dumped the "fairness doctrine" in 1987, there was a nearly even mix of liberals, conservatives and moderates on talk radio. Liberal groups have been pushing Democrats in Congress to pass legislation to reinstate the "fairness doctrine," but they're failing to recognize the fact that conservative talk-radio hosts are reaching less than 20 percent of American radio listeners, according to the Arbitron audience ratings. (Photo: Mike Murphy via

By Skeeter Sanders

It’s not easy to turn a mean, rich white guy like Rush Limbaugh into “a martyr,” the British newsmagazine The Economist said in a recent editorial. But if liberal activists get their way and push the Democratic-controlled Congress into passing a bill to reimpose the so-called "fairness doctrine" on talk radio, that’s exactly what Limbaugh would turn into, as far as conservatives are concerned.

A long-abandoned Federal Communications Commission rule dating back to the early days of radio and television -- when most Americans listened to AM radio, there were only three broadcast TV networks and cable and satellite TV didn't exist -- the "fairness doctrine" required broadcasters enjoying the use of public airwaves to provide equal time for all points of view.

Nowhere was the "fairness doctrine's" impact felt more heavily than in radio and TV news coverage of election campaigns. No station or network could cover Candidate A without giving equal time to covering Candidate B -- or, for that matter, Candidates C, D, E or F.

But the rule also strongly impacted talk radio. Station owners took great pains to ensure that there was as broad a mix of viewpoints as possible, lest they run afoul of the FCC. So it wasn't unusual for a conservative talk-show host to be followed by a liberal one, then followed by a moderate -- although, truth be told, moderates dominated the talk-radio airwaves as late as 1980.

All that changed in 1987, when the FCC did away with the "fairness doctrine," declaring it an unconstitutional infringement on free speech. The commission scrapped the doctrine, in fact, to head off an adverse ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, which was considering a First Amendment legal challenge to the rule.

In the 20 years since then, conservatives have dominated talk radio, almost to the point of monopoly. And no one has dominated talk radio more than Limbaugh, whose daily syndicated program is carried on more than 600 stations across the country and draws an estimated 20 million listeners a week, according to Arbitron, the audience ratings firm that is to radio what A.C. Nielsen is to television.

Liberals, fed up with the right-wing dominance of talk radio -- and disheartened by the failure of liberal talk-radio hosts to draw more than a tiny fraction of the talk-radio listening audience -- began pressuring congressional Democrats last summer to bring back the "fairness doctrine" to once and for all break the conservative stranglehold on the format.

More Than 90 Percent of Talk-Radio Shows Hosted By Conservatives. . .

A recent study by the Center for American Progress found that 91 percent of weekday talk radio shows are hosted by conservatives. That’s 2,570 hours a day of “right-wing flapping on the airwaves,” compared to 254 hours of liberal talk -- much of the latter on the struggling Air America Radio Network, which came out of bankruptcy earlier this year.

The 3 1/2-year-old Air America recently added 11 affiliate stations, halting a steep loss of stations -- including its New York flagship, WLIB -- when it filed for bankruptcy a year ago. At its peak, the network had just over 100 affiliates; it now has about 60 and is heard in New York on WWRL.

Liberals argue that talk radio isn’t truly a free market. A handful of conglomerates own most of the stations, and they save money by syndicating the same shows in hundreds of markets. Conveniently, the dominant voices happen to share the owners’ pro-Republican, free-market views, liberals say.

Conservatives counter that this simply reflects audience choice, noting that Air America and other radio companies have tried liberal talk-show hosts, only to see their shows bomb in the Arbitron ratings.

They argue that after the FCC did away with the "fairness doctrine," talk radio "naturally evolved" as a conservative alternative to the dominant liberal bias found everywhere else -- Hollywood, academia, The New York Times, PBS, NPR, CNN and the three network TV news divisions.

"Isn’t it telling," wrote conservative columnist Rich Lowry on the Internet edition of the National Review, "that the only way the left can respond to the popularity of Rush, Sean Hannity, et al., is to regulate them out of existence? The left sure has some funny ideas about the First Amendment. Apparently, it protects nude dancing, profanity, and smut on TV, but doesn’t quite apply to people broadcasting conservative views.”

. . .But Talk-Radio Listeners Are a Conservative White Boy's Club

Lowry and other conservative columnists -- and their liberal counterparts -- have all conveniently chosen to ignore one very important fact about talk radio: The right-wings hosts who dominate it are essentially preaching to the choir.

A 2004 demographic survey of the talk radio audience by the Pew Research Center found that less than a fifth of the American radio audience -- 17 percent -- regularly listens to talk radio. This audience is mostly white, male, Republican, middle-aged and conservative.

The Pew Center study found that 41 percent of talk radio listeners identify themselves as Republican, while only 28 percent identify themselves as Democrats. Even more starkly, 45 percent of talk-radio listeners describe themselves as conservatives, compared with only 18 percent who say they are liberal.

Talk Radio an AM Format, While Most Americans Listen to FM

Not only are conservative talk show hosts essentially preaching to the choir, but they're preaching to a very small one. The overwhelming majority of talk radio stations broadcast on the AM band, but more than 80 percent of Americans listen to FM radio. With its high-fidelity reception that's impervious to adverse weather conditions (such as lightning storms), FM has been the dominant radio medium for more than 35 years, ever since the advent of FM stereo broadcasting.

One needs to look no further than the Arbitron ratings that measure the radio audience. In market after market after market, FM stations dominate the top ranks. While talk radio has long been the dominant format on AM radio, it simply can't compete against FM in total listeners.

Arbitron also maintains a separate, less-publicized survey that includes non-commercial FM stations. And those surveys show that National Public Radio -- by far the nation's largest FM radio network, with nearly 800 affiliated stations across the country and long branded "liberal" by conservative critics -- actually draws a larger audience than Limbaugh.

NPR's most listened-to program, "Morning Edition," attracts 25 million to 28 million listeners a week, compared to Limbaugh's 20 million. And the public network's afternoon news show, "All Things Considered," outdraws even the three network TV evening newscasts.

Talk Radio: A 62-Year-Old Format Started By Barry Gray

Talk radio as a listener-participation format has existed since at least the mid-1940s. Working for New York's WMCA in 1945, Barry Gray was bored with playing music and put a telephone receiver up to his microphone to talk with bandleader Woody Herman. Soon followed by listener call-ins, this is often credited as the first instance of talk radio, and Gray is often billed as "The Father of Talk Radio."

Joe Pyne and "Long" John Nebel in New York and Jerry Williams in Boston were among the first to explore the medium in the 1950s (Pyne went on to host a short-lived TV talk show in the late 1960s; Nebel co-hosted his late-night talk show -- which went national in 1979 -- with his wife, Candy Jones, until his death in 1983).

Two radio stations -- KMOX in St. Louis, Missouri and KABC in Los Angeles -- adopted an all-talk show format in 1960 and both claim to be the first to have done so (KABC station manager Ben Hoberman and KMOX station manager Robert Hyland independently developed the all-talk format, each unaware that the other was doing the same thing).

Radio Monitor on NBC Radio was the first national talk radio network, broadcasting from NBC's 30 Rockefeller Plaza studios in New York. Personalities such as Joe Garagiola, Bill Cullen, Don Pardo and a host of other top talent -- some of whom went on to more successful careers on television -- were heard coast to coast.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, as millions of listeners abandoned AM music stations for the high-fidelity stereo sound of the FM radio dial, the talk radio format began to catch on in more and more markets, eventually becoming the dominant AM radio format.

Indeed, it was truly the end of an era when the legendary Top-40 music giant WABC New York -- the radio station that for more than 20 years was the symbolic musical voice for the Baby Boomer generation -- made the switch to all-talk in 1982. It's the flagship station of Limbaugh's "Excellence in Broadcasting" network (Although Limbaugh now broadcasts from his home in Palm Beach, Florida).

Limbaugh's Success Leads to Conservative Takeover of Talk Radio

Talk radio provided an immediacy and a high degree of emotionalism that seldom is reached on television or in magazines. The most successful pioneer in the 1990s expansion of talk radio -- bar none -- is Limbaugh. Starting as a local disc jockey-turned-talk show host in Sacramento, California, Limbaugh's success demonstrated that there was a nationwide market for passionately-delivered conservative commentary on contemporary news, events, and social trends.

Other radio talk show hosts who describe themselves as either conservative or libertarian have also had success as nationally-syndicated hosts in Limbaugh's footsteps, including Sean Hannity, G. Gordon Liddy, Laura Ingraham, Neal Boortz, Michael Savage, Bill O'Reilly, Glenn Beck, Larry Elder, Mark Levin and Michael Reagan (the adopted son of former President Ronald Reagan).

Savage truly lives up to his name -- He's the most incendiary right-wing polemicist on the radio today, with a slashing, take-no-prisoners, scorched-earth style that often takes aim even at his fellow conservative talk show hosts.

Beck, Hannity and O'Reilly have gained additional success on television, with Beck hosting a prime-time program on CNN Headline News and Hannity and O'Reilly holding court with their own shows on Fox News Channel.

In a World By Itself: Late-Night 'Coast to Coast A.M.'

Yet America's most popular national talk radio show, in terms of the Arbitron ratings, is neither conservative nor liberal. In fact, it avoids politics altogether. It's George Noory's late-night talk show, "Coast to Coast A.M.," carried overnight on more than 500 stations across the country.

Begun by Art Bell in the late 1980s as "West Coast A.M.," the show eschews politics in favor of offbeat topics ranging from spirituality to UFOs to the paranormal, and is the only talk radio program that ranks number one in the Arbitrons in many cities (Bell turned over the hosting duties to Noory in 2004, staying on as weekend host until he retired in July).

"Coast to Coast A.M." has the added distinction of being the only American talk radio show that's also carried in Canada -- on 30 stations across the "Great White North," from Halifax to Vancouver.

Liberal Talk Radio Has a Lot of Catching Up to Do

With conservative talk radio having had a 20-year head start, liberal talk radio aimed at a national audience is only now carving out a niche for itself -- although its ratings remain a fraction of right-wing talk radio.

Air America Radio, founded in 2004, bills itself as a "progressive alternative" to the conservative talk radio shows. Its biggest star is Randi Rhodes, whose afternoon show is syndicated to over 100 stations in addition to Air America's 60 affiliates. Other prominent liberal talk shows currently in national syndication Ed Schultz, Alan Colmes, Bill Press, and Stephanie Miller.

In some markets, local liberal hosts have thrived for years, such as Bernie Ward and Ray Taliaferro in San Francisco, Jack Ellery in New Jersey and Tampa, Dave Ross in Seattle, and Marc Germain in Los Angeles.

Pacifica Network: Noncommercial, Hard-Core Left-Wing Radio

But, ideologically speaking, these shows pale in comparison to the hard-core left-wing opinions voiced on the noncommercial Pacifica Network. With 75 affiliates across the country, mostly volunteer-run community FM stations (many owned by colleges and universities), Pacifica -- founded by a group of self-avowed pacifists in Berkeley, California in 1949, hence its name -- makes no bones about its staunchly left-wing, anti-corporate political leanings.

Pacifica can afford to be anti-corporate, since, as a noncommercial network, it's not counted in the Arbitron ratings and thus doesn't have to worry about pleasing advertisers. And unlike NPR, Pacifica doesn't accept corporate grants. Nor does it accept taxpayer-financed grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Yet Pacifica's signature program, "Democracy Now!," co-hosted by Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez, is the most widely-distributed radio program of its kind, carried on more than 400 stations -- including a handful of commercial stations whose owners can never be accused of being liberal.

(In the interest of full disclosure, this blogger hosts a weekly smooth-jazz program on WGDR-FM, the Pacifica Network affiliate owned by Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont, serving the state capital, Montpelier and surrounding area.)

There's little chance that Congress will pass a "fairness doctrine" bill -- and even if it did, President Bush would surely veto it. And, for once, this blogger wouldn't have a problem with a veto.

Let the right wing have their medium. Since they're "preaching to the choir" anyway -- and that choir is less than 20 percent of the total radio audience -- why bother with resuscitating the "fairness doctrine?"

Besides, "Coast to Coast A.M." is the only radio talk show that this blogger regularly listens to anymore.

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Volume II, Number 58
Copyright 2007, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.


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