Opinion

John Carlson | Do you want 'fairness' or 'freedom' on radio?

Let’s start where everyone agrees. There are far more conservative voices on the radio than liberal voices. Most people digest this morsel of information with a shoulder shrug. There are, after all, more than 30 other stations on the dial, along with hundreds of choices on satellite radio, and of course limitless options for what you play on your iPod or the CD player in your car.

But in the nation’s capitol, a debate is rising about whether this rightward tilt of talk radio justifies a return of The Fairness Doctrine to get more liberal voices on the radio airwaves. The Fairness Doctrine actually dates back to the late 1940s and the advent of television. At the time, there were far fewer stations on the radio dial, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) developed the doctrine to require stations that used the public airwaves to “afford reasonable opportunity for discussion of contrasting points of views on controversial matters…”

The vagueness of the doctrine’s language, the propensity of both Republican and Democratic administrations to use the doctrine to harass stations that opposed them, and the reality that broadcast licenses had to be renewed by the FCC made most broadcasters cautious. Not in terms of balance, but in terms of content. They simply shied away from controversy in general and talk radio in particular.

In the Reagan era, the FCC did away with the Fairness Doctrine, arguing that “the role of the electronic press in our society is the same as that of the printed press. Both are sources of information and viewpoint.” At that time, there were about 400 talk stations in America. In less than 20 years, there would be 1,400.

In other words, more voices everywhere. In the Seattle market, there is far more political content than there was in the 1970s or 1980s. There are two stations, 570 KVI and KTTH; there’s KIRO, which offers both liberal and more conservative programming, Air America, which is distinctly liberal, and the mostly liberal NPR stations, KUOW and KPLU. Then there's my station, KOMO 1000 Newsradio, which is primarily a news station with one talk show, The Commentators, Where Ken Schram and I duke it out daily from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

I’m not even counting the stations that feature popular talk shows that mostly keep their distance from politics (such as Bob Rivers on KZOK or The T-Man on KUBE).

Progressives complain that they are outgunned. One liberal think tank says that nationally, conservatives outnumber liberals 9-1. Prominent Democrats, from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Tom Harkin to Bill Clinton to Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow (whose husband has been an executive at several liberal talk companies) say that the Fairness Doctrine would level things out. Bill Clinton spoke for most of them when he said that “We either ought to have the Fairness Doctrine or we ought to have more balance on the other side.”

But what if people simply aren’t choosing to listen to it? We have two daily newspapers in this town, the liberal Seattle PI and the more moderate Seattle Times. There is no conservative newspaper. Should the government require one?

Calls for the renewal of The Fairness Doctrine are really demands for the government to use its power to bail out liberal talk radio hosts who in most markets just can’t draw a crowd. Quashing the right of consumers to choose the programming they want isn’t about fairness, it’s about infringing on their freedom. Which strikes me as, well, very illiberal.

John Carlson hosts a daily radio program, “The Commentators,” with KOMO 4’s Ken Schram each weekday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. E-mail him at johncarlson@komoradio.com.

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