The air was ours before we were the air's.

Radio and television signals travel through that air, but the air remains the property of the American people. Now there is a movement afoot to deed it over to the private interests that control American broadcasting. It is part of the deregulation virus and marketplace madness afflicting the Reagan administration, which loves commercial broadcasting almost as much as it loves oil companies.

It's a particularly pernicious form of mischief proposed by one of Reagan's appointees and endorsed by the now Republican-controlled FCC: repeal of the Fairness Doctrine and the equal-time provision of the Communications Act, which has governed broadcasting in this country since 1934.

The Fairness Doctrine, a bill of rights for the viewing public, requires broadcasters to provide time on the air for balanced presentations of controversial issues. "Equal time" means that if a station gives air time to a candidate for public office, it must also give an equal amount of time to all other legally qualified candidates for that office.

These rules are cornerstones of American broadcasting; in 1969, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled the Fairness Doctrine constitutional and also upheld the FCC's related personal-attack rules, which require a station to give you time on the air to answer a personal attack upon you by that station, and which Reaganauts would also like to smash into smithereens.

On the surface, the idea seems both so preposterous and so politically naive (what legislators would vote away a rule that gives them access to air time in their home states?) that it qualifies as science fiction. But then, administrations that misinterpret the size and nature of their mandates have a habit of getting chronically carried away. One minute it's a laughable joke and the next minute, blammo, you've got a fixed-position MX missile in your face.

Reagan's former campaign lawyer and his newly appointed FCC chairman, Mark Fowler, wants the rules repealed. He says the time has come "to eliminate a large burden on freedom of speech." No burden on freedom of speech has ever been proved or demonstrated; in fact, the repeal would give all the freedom to the broadcaster and leave the public stranded. In one fell swoop, broadcasters would be absolved of all responsibility to be fair.

Radio and television can be unfair enough even with a Fairness Doctrine. Without one, and with the generous, longer license terms recently bestowed by the Reagan administration, they will be accountable to no one -- no one but their own accountants.

Consumer advocate Ralph Nader calls this presumptuous move "colossal impudence" and says it represents "a total grab for power" by broadcasters. "They're not just satisfied with making an enormous bundle of money -- commercial broadcasting has a tremendous rate of return that makes the oil industry look like pikers," says Nader. "Now they want to shut out the American people as well."

Fowler says the original rules were drawn up because of the "scarcity" of available broadcast sources and claims this scarcity is now a thing of the past, what with all the new technologies running riot across the American landscape. In reality, though, only a minority of Americans has access to these alleged wonders. The dominant new form is pay-TV; the fact that some households watch movies on HBO has nothing to do with access to news.

Nader says "the so-called proliferating technologies have not proliferated yet" and that scarcity is not the point anyway. "The issue of accountability is linear, not horizontal. It boils down to this: the source of the complaint is where the remedy lies." Nader says that if the rules are repealed, Walter Cronkite could call you a convicted felon on CBS and, when you asked for time to answer back, CBS could tell you to go fly a kite. Or to try ABC or NBC.

Of course, you could seek redress in the civil courts, provided you had five or six years and a few hundred thousand bucks to spare.

It's an extreme example, but Nader does not think it too far-fetched. He can envision horrible possibilities. "I can see radio stations that specialize in attacking people," he says, "the way stations specialize now in news or rock music. They could put National Enquirer stuff on the air all day long."

Fowler says most cities have more radio and TV stations than they have newspapers and so the real scarcity is of newspapers. But Nader says that comparing TV stations to newspapers is patently specious.

"The difference is so elementary, it escapes Fowler," says Nader. "You and I or anybody else can get together and buy a newspaper, even if it's just a mimeograph machine in the basement. But we can't get together and put up a transmitter and start broadcasting.

"When somebody sets up a newspaper, it's theirs. The readers don't have a property right in a newspaper. But the public airwaves began in the public domain. A certain portion is given to the licensee to use for private profit; he becomes the trustee for a public property right. Now the broadcasters want to turn it into a total private property monopoly system.

"The broadcast spectrum is allocated, and allocated for good reason. It's a public trust.

"It's just like the Mississippi River."

Broadcasters argue for abolition of the Fairness Doctrine like this: They say it isn't needed. You cite an example of abuse by a radio or television station. They say, "See? The Fairness Doctrine doesn't do any good anyway; it should be abolished."

Richard Salant, former CBS News president and now an NBC executive, has cursed the Fairness Doctrine for years. He says fears about a new tyranny of arrogance and power by broadcasters no longer answerable to a doctrine are groundless, but he isn't very convincing.

"We'd lose our credibility if perceived as unfair, and that's the ultimate protection," says Salant. "I understand the fears. I can't guarantee, knowing some of the broadcasters that I do, that the record is going to be spotless." But he says he can vouch for CBS and NBC because "I've worked for them."

Sam Simon, executive director of the National Citizens Committee for Broadcasting, says he thinks dropping the Equal Time Rule would wreak calamity. "In terms of the political reality, the broadcasters will have the absolute right to decide which candidates are given coverage, and they will be able to support any candidate they want," says Simon. "Imagine how that will fundamentally change the political structure of this country. We'll have three parties: ABC, CBS and NBC."

The effect would be felt on the state and local level as well. Simon says a friend of his who is counsel to the FCC occasionally gets an inquiring call from a Joe Blowhard, station manager at WWWW in Supply Side, USA, saying, "My buddy John is running for mayor. Do I really have to give his opponents equal time?"

Yes, Joe, you do. It's the law. For now.

Hardened politicos aren't giving the FCC's recommendation much chance of passage on the Hill. For one thing, congressmen who'll be running next year are said to be on the terrified side over the concept that their local radio and TV stations could preemptively deny them air time. But Andrew Jay Schwartzman, executive director of the Media Access Project, thinks it is best to take even outlandish proposals seriously. You never know. Schwartzman recalls Sen. Bob Packwood's (R-Ore.) tactic in smuggling the longer license terms through Congress last summer.

Packwood declared that the measures came within the boundaries of the budgetary "reconciliation" process because they contained a provision for user's fees to be charged broadcasters for whom The Air makes all that money. But broadcasters didn't want to pay user's fees, so Packwood gingerly dropped them from the package; the broadcasters got the sugar coating and they didn't even have to take the pill.

Schwartzman's group started a Friends of the Fairness Doctrine unit -- now soliciting funds -- last May. He says the proposal constitutes or epitomizes "a significant danger. If you look at the big picture, you can see this is part of a systematic, long-range effort. The people pushing for this are in for the long haul."

Even if the proposal sounds far-fetched, there is evidence the administration is willing to get out the hardball to support it. Broadcasting magazine reports that FCC commissioner Abbott W. Washburn, one of those who voted against Fowler's insane plan, may have lost his job because he voted his convictions and not the party line. As a result, Broadcasting said, Republican Washburn will probably not be reappointed by Reagan when his term expires next June.

Former FCC chairman Richard E. Wiley, now a communications lawyer here, says he has "always" been against the equal-time law: "It becomes a no-time law in local races where you have eight or 10 candidates for an office," he says, because broadcasters simply duck local political coverage in order to be free of hassle. And truly, equal time could stand some tinkering so that it doesn't have to be lifted by congressional vote every four years in order to make presidential TV debates possible.

But even the conservative Wiley says: "The principle of the Fairness Doctrine, I support."

Why should this radical measure suddenly be advocated now? Nader says it's because "there's a go-for-broke mentality in the business community. You go for it now, while Reagan's in office and you have a Republican Senate." Says Schwartzman, "They want to ram through as much as they can while they've got the climate."

Broadcasters bray that the law as it stands prevents or discourages them from getting into controversial issues. They point to such aberrations as a 1972 case in which NBC had to go to court over an expose' on pension funds. Any rule can be misinterpreted or poorly applied. "60 Minutes" doesn't seem hampered by the Fairness Doctrine. "20/20" isn't crippled by the Equal Time Rule. Investigative news teams at local stations all over the country seem to be surviving and thriving under the allegedly onerous burden of the personal-attack rules.

Does anybody think that the managements of TV and radio stations really are dying to do more controversial programming? Ridiculous. Why then do they lobby for repeal of the FCC rules? Because -- They Want It All.

"They are saying the entire public airwaves should be controlled by structures that are profit-making and that they should decide what gets on the air based only on the dollar standard," says Nader. "There are other values in America -- health, fair play, future generations. But they want the gatekeepers to be the dollar standard. And nothing else."