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Another Right-Wing Conspiracy in Washington?

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By Bill Press
Sunday, February 8, 2009

If you're looking for a break from those conservative voices that dominate talk radio, take time out today to listen to local station OBAMA 1260 AM. You'll hear the progressive voices of Stephanie Miller, Ed Schultz, Lionel -- or, during morning drive, my own "Bill Press Show" -- providing welcome relief from the constant Obama-bashing by Rush Limbaugh and others. Unfortunately, today's the last day you'll be able to do so.

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As reported by The Post [Style, Feb. 2], Dan Snyder's Red Zebra Broadcasting Co., owner of OBAMA 1260, has announced plans to jettison all progressive talk and replace it with pre-recorded financial advice programming.

The commercial use of public airwaves is supposed to reflect the diversity of the local community, but that's not how it works in Washington. On the AM dial, WMAL (630) features wall-to-wall conservative talk. So do stations WTNT (570) and WHFS (1580). For the past two years, OBAMA 1260 -- even with a weak signal that cannot be heard in downtown Washington -- was the exception. No longer. Starting tomorrow, our nation's capital, where Democrats control the House, the Senate and the White House, and where Democrats outnumber Republicans 10 to one, will have no progressive voices on the air.

Or maybe one.

To mollify critics, Red Zebra has said it will add Ed Schultz to its conservative lineup on 570 AM. This means Shultz will be outgunned in this market by at least 15 conservative talkers: Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Mark Levin, Chris Plante, Michael Smerconish, Michael Savage, Andy Parks, Fred Grandy, Bill Bennett, Monica Crowley, Bill O'Reilly, Dennis Miller and Lars Larsen. No matter how good Schultz is, that's not a fair contest -- nor a fair use of the public airwaves.

Unfortunately, what's happening in Washington reflects what has happened in one city after another across the country. In Miami, Clear Channel recently dumped progressive talk for sports: Clear Channel stations made the same move in San Diego and Cincinnati. Sacramento abandoned progressive talk for gospel music. In fact, according to a study released by the Center for American Progress and Free Press, there are nine hours of conservative talk for every one hour of progressive talk.

Why? Station owners complain they can't get good ratings or make any money with progressive talk, but that's nonsense. In Minnesota, independent owner Janet Robert has operated KTNF (950 AM) profitably for five years. In Madison, Wis., WXXM, 92.1 FM, just scored its highest ratings ever. And KPOJ in Portland, Ore., soared with progressive talk from No. 23 in market ratings to No. 1. Nationwide, progressive talkers Randi Rhodes, Ed Schultz and Stephanie Miller have proven that, given a level playing field, they can more than hold their own in ratings -- and make money for their stations.

In fact, the only reason there's not more competition on American airwaves is that the handful of companies that own most radio stations do everything they can to block it. In many markets -- witness Philadelphia, Boston, Providence and Houston -- they join in providing no outlet for progressive talk. In others, as in Washington, they limit it to a weak signal, spend zero dollars on promotion and soon pull the plug.

Companies are given a license to operate public airwaves -- free! -- in order to make a profit, yes, but also, according to the terms of their FCC license, "to operate in the public interest and to afford reasonable opportunity for the discussion of conflicting views of issues of public importance." Stations are not operating in the public interest when they offer only conservative talk.

For years, the Fairness Doctrine prevented such abuse by requiring licensed stations to carry a mix of opinion. However, under pressure from conservatives, President Ronald Reagan's Federal Communications Commission canceled the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, insisting that in a free market, stations would automatically offer a balance in programming.

That experiment has failed. There is no free market in talk radio today, only an exclusive, tightly held, conservative media conspiracy. The few holders of broadcast licenses have made it clear they will not, on their own, serve the general public. Maybe it's time to bring back the Fairness Doctrine -- and bring competition back to talk radio in Washington and elsewhere.

-- Bill Press

Washington

The writer, host of "The Bill Press Show," is working on a book about talk radio.


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