That was a pretty bold step the Federal Communications Commission took when it proposed new rules that would amost completely deregulate the nation's radio stations. It is recommending nothing less than a reversal of the policy under which radio (and television) have been developed in this country. The old theory was that broadcasters have a public responsibility which the government must make sure that they fulfill because they are using a limited resource (the airways), which government regulates for their benefit. The proposed rules rest on the belief that radio (but not television) has now become so competitive that the marketplace can replace the government as the overseer.

The main limitations that would disappear are those 1) restricting the amount of advertising that can be broadcast, 2) requiring a certain amount of news and public-service programming, and 3) compeling each station to address the "needs and problems" of its community.

All this is quite different from the questions raised in deregulating other industries. There the questions involve the ability of the marketplace to replace the government as a regulator of economic matters -- mainly prices and service. In broadcasting, the real questions are noneconomic because a station that fails to satisfy its audience will go bust. Instead, the questions involve peoples' preferences and public policy. Will the preferences of listeners require stations to broadcast news and information as well as entertainment and commercials? If not, should the government try to impose a different standard on the grounds that it must keep the electorate informed?

There is going to be no shortage of public discussion of these proposals. The broadcasters, naturally, are all for them. Some public-interest groups are against. The argument will concern, first, whether the radio industry is as competitive as the FCC thinks it is and, second, even if it is, whether it would be good policy to remove the existing checks on an industry that is so important in the dissemination of information and ideas.

This is one debate that will be worth listening to: the FCC's proposals go to principles central to the communications business and raise questions about the basic role of government in a free-enterprise system.