The Situation of Talk Radio
Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 14, 2008
Sue Wilson recently wrote an editorial for The Sacramento Bee, “Federal rules give corporation-backed conservative radio all the local voices.” In it she discusses several of the situational forces influencing what voices and viewpoints occupy the airwaves. We’ve posted much of the editorial below in part because reading it in its entirety helps set the stage for Rush Limbaugh’s reaction, portions of which are also included below.
* * *
There’s a mournful hush in Sacramento these days, the empty sound of an entire political viewpoint quieted. More than 32,000 weekly listeners who once tuned to KSAC (1240 AM) to hear partisan Democrats beat up on President George W. Bush, now hear only Christian hip-hop.
There’s nothing wrong with Christian hip-hop; it’s a great outlet for artists breaking out of the gansta rap mold. But there are six other commercial radio stations licensed in the Sacramento area programming the Christian message. In the political realm, three local radio stations program 264 hours of partisan Republican radio talkers beating up on Democrats every week. Now, zero stations program any Democratic view whatsoever: 264-0.
This follows the national trend revealed in the 2007 Free Press and Center for American Progress study, “The Structural Imbalance of Political Talk Radio.” Nationally, 90 percent of commercial talk radio is conservative; only 10 percent is liberal. (This study does not include Public Radio, which by statute is required to provide differing points of view. . . .)
KSAC shared another characteristic with other liberal radio stations: It had a tiny, 1,000-watt transmitter. Tough for a little station that barely reached Sacramento’s suburbs to compete with 50,000 watt giant KFBK, whose signal stretches from Chico to Modesto, from Reno to that little town of San Francisco. Despite KFBK reaching millions more potential listeners, KSAC mustered an audience nearly 20 percent that of KFBK’s. (Its ratings were double local conservative station KTKZ, which has a 5,000-watt transmitter.) And Arbitron showed the progressive station’s audience was steadily growing. KSAC was the little station that could.
Until it couldn’t.
It wasn’t that Talk City didn’t have listeners, it’s that it didn’t have advertisers.
The radio business model is simple: Start a show, grow an audience and advertisers will follow. But that model doesn’t work for progressive talk radio.
Why would advertisers steer clear of progressive talk? Chris Jones, managing editor of the blog “the Hot Points,” writes: “What respectable business is going to send millions of dollars in ad revenue to people who bash the president, the country and the war on a constant basis? Not only that, but liberals never miss an opportunity to bash corporations as evil and crooked. Why the hell would big business support the enemy?”
Well, wait a minute. Plenty of advertisers supported radio shows that bashed then- President Bill Clinton, calling his pursuit of Osama bin Laden “wagging the dog.” But this misses the real point: Why are corporate dollars the sole arbiter of what information we the people get to hear on publicly owned airwaves?
The answer is policy-makers, with campaigns financed by those same corporations, changed two important rules. In 1987, then-President Reagan’s FCC got rid of the Fairness Doctrine, which required that radio and TV provide a “reasonable opportunity to hear both sides of controversial issues.” The Reagan administration thought the marketplace would provide its own balance.
Then, in 1996, Congress allowed a few companies to own unlimited numbers of radio stations. Huge conglomerates bought the best and biggest stations, and purchased multiple stations within the same market. Then they blanketed more than 1,700 stations with conservative talk. Using their newly created economies of scale, they offered businesses special packages to advertise on stations they owned both locally and nationally.
That in turn starved independent stations of revenue. It was good business.
But it shouldn’t be only about good business; it should also be about public policy and the discourse demanded by Democracy, a discourse protected well by the founders of broadcasting but ignored by recent deregulation.
Broadcasters make a deal when they obtain – for free – a license to broadcast in a community. In exchange for the opportunity to make millions of dollars, the broadcasters must serve the public interest – the public interest of all of the people, not just a targeted slice of audience most likely to buy their product. It should not be solely about corporations willing to shell out millions to market their message and to keep business-friendly politicians in office.
It should also be about revealing the information that Enron, Bear Stearns, Halliburton and other corporations would prefer to hide.
* * *
We have allowed policy-makers in this country to create a so-called marketplace to promote one message almost exclusively over another.
But there really is no marketplace at all. Anybody can start a new coffee shop across from Starbucks and compete for business. But almost nobody can just start a new radio station to compete for listeners; the airwaves are limited, and the frequencies are already taken – mostly by big corporations.
Considering a 2003 Gallup poll showing that 22 percent of Americans get their information from talk radio, we’re not just talking about what is fair play; we are talking about a threat to the democracy we hold dear.
* * *
It is time for all of us to take their lead, to remember that we the people own these frequencies, and to compel our representatives to put the public back into the public airwaves.
* * *
Here is a portion of Rush Limbaugh’s reaction, “SacBee Laments Right-Wing Talk Radio as a ‘Threat to Democracy.’ Notice how Limbaugh describes the success of conservative talk radio as solely the consequence of content and merit (disposition, not situation), while, in a way, recognizing that pro-commercial ideas are advantaged.
* * *
As you know, ladies and gentlemen, my adopted hometown is Sacramento, California. I worked out there at KFBK, 50,000 watt blowtorch, ’til this day carries the program, been on the air there since 1984, so 24 years at KFBK Sacramento, number one. And while there, one of my nemeses was the Sacramento Bee, the local newspaper owned by the McClatchy clan. It is still owned by the McClatchy clan, and it has still refused to accept what has happened to me, as evidenced by a story that is special to the Bee published yesterday. Headline: “Federal Rules Give Corporation-Backed Conservative Radio all the Local Voices.” This is a story, this is a hand-wringing, tear-jerker story of how liberal talk radio couldn’t make it out there, and damn it, it’s not fair, it’s not right, and it’s because federal rules give corporation-backed conservative radio all the local voices. . . .
* * *
. . . . I would defy anybody to find me a liberal network show, nationally syndicated liberal show that registers any significant ratings anywhere. They don’t. And even those that get some numbers do not have advertisers. Sue Wilson here swerved into it. There’s a very simple reason why. . . . [I]f you are a corporation or a small business, why in the world would you spend any money on a radio station or a show which is demonizing you and the business community as the greatest modern focus of evil in the country outside of the US military? Why in the world would you do it? Not to mention advertising on these stations got no results because their audience hears a commercial for corporation, “Screw that corporation, I’m not going there.” If the corporation doesn’t do commercials bashing Bush — I mean this is an insane, lunatic fringe audience these people are trying to reach. Sacramento voter registration, when I was there, was 72% Democrat.
They’ve gotta start asking themselves, why does liberal programming not work? But they’re wringing their hands, “It’s just unfair, because corporations won’t put liberal talk radio on powerful stations. That’s right, Mr. Limbaugh, it’s really not fair. You get the big station, and they get the little Podunk stations. No wonder.” I got the big station and earned the right to be there, as has everybody else on KFBK, via content, content, content. This is not hard to understand, but these libs and the Drive-By Media want to portray this as some sign of corporate unfairness. . . .
“. . . . Why are corporate dollars the sole arbiter of what information we the people get to hear on publicly owned airwaves?” This is the reporter asking the question, which illustrates glittering ignorance of how the market works.
Let me answer your question, Sue. Corporate dollars are not the sole arbiter of what information you the people get to hear on publicly owned airwaves. Your little lib station, your little lib programming has had a couple of opportunities in Sacramento. Nobody wanted to listen to it. Corporations are not required to lose money in order to present a point of view and in such a way that irritates people just so there is so-called fairness. Besides, you’ve always got NPR, Sue. There’s an NPR outlet out there and assorted other liberal outlets with no ratings and no advertisers because they don’t have to. They’re paid for by the government! There is not one conservative radio network in the country paid for with government dollars. You got NPR. NPR is paid for with government dollars — radio and television. So go there. What has been demonstrated here is that for all the talk about a 50-50 country and this, that, and the other thing, the simple fact of the matter is that the liberal point of view as constituted today repulses people. They have chosen and demonstrated they have no desire to listen to it, not even lunatic fringe libs like it.
* * *
Notice how Limbaugh claims that progressive ideas are unattractive to American listeners despite the fact that he routinely laments the alleged liberal bias elsewhere in the media (beyond talk radio). Is it feasible that progressive ideas are palatable — preferred even — in the newspapers and on telvision, but repulsive on the radio?
The pair of items, we believe, nicely illustrate the naive cynicism dynamic (discussed in posts such as “Naive Cynicism,” and “Naïve Cynicism in Election 2008“), and the system-justification motive (discussed in posts such as “Patriots Lose: Justice Restored!,” “Thanksgiving as “System Justification”?” and “The Young and the Lucky.” The two pieces also confirm the deep-capture hypothesis (discussed in posts such as “Ayn Rand’s Dispositionism,” and “Deep Capture – Part X,” “The company “had no control or influence over the research” . . . .” and “The Situation of Judging.”).