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Friday, June 22, 2007

Wingnut Radio is a Symptom

by Realism

With the hubbub about this report I thought that I should weigh in. It's interesting how conservative talk radio dominates in almost every market. While it's clear that America overwhelmingly supports the liberal agenda, 91 percent of the total weekday talk radio programming is conservative. Many of our friends on the right suggest that the reason that we don't see more progressive talk radio is "Mostly because it sucks". However, even a cursory glance at the evidence shows that this is not true. For the real answer, we need to look at the effects of media consolidation, and how that has affected the content of radio programming.

One reason for the imbalance might be the talk radio demographic tends to be more male, middle-aged, and conservative. However, research by Pew indicates that the audience does have more diversity than the programming — 43 percent of regular talk radio listeners identify as conservative, while 23 percent identify as liberal and 30 percent as moderate. The ideological breakdown of the country as a whole during this same period was very similar — 36 percent conservative, 21 percent liberal, and 35 percent moderate. Of course, this is a somewhat circular argument. It seems apparent that since the programming is over 90% conservative, there aren't going to be many progressive listeners.

More importantly, even in liberal markets where progressive talk radio has competitive ratings and revenue, station owners will often broadcast conservative programming on multiple stations compared to just one for progressive talk. For example,

in Portland, OR, where progressive talk on KPOJ AM 620 competes effectively with conservative talk on KEX AM 1190, station owners also broadcast conservative talk on KXL AM 750 and KPAM AM 860. Although there is a clear demand and proven success of progressive talk in this market, station owners still elect to stack the airwaves with one-sided broadcasting.

This issue is more important than simply ensuring that liberal voices are not censored by media conglomerates whose interests are better served by a political philosophy that puts the financial well being of large corporations ahead of the public interest. Media consolidation has been shown to pose significant problems when the public interest is in conflict with the profit motive of the broadcaster.

For example, in 1997, the Fox affiliate in Tampa, Florida fired two reporters and suppressed a story they had produced about one of the Fox network's major advertisers, Monsanto, concerning the health effects of Bovine Growth Hormone (BGH). Fox took action after Monsanto threatened to sue over the story. This is one specific incident where the broadcaster censored an important news story in order to protect their financial interests.

Another problem caused by media consolidation is the lack of attention to important local issues. When the majority of local media outlets are controlled by national media conglomerates, issues that are important to the local populace are ignored in favor of content that can easily be shared throughout different markets. As an example, see the testimony of Jonathan Adelstein, FCC Commissioner, 05/26/04
"Many of you might have heard this story about Minot, North Dakota where there was a derailment of a train which was carrying toxic fertilizer. When it derailed this cloud moved towards the city, a toxic cloud. And they tried to contact the broadcasters. The sheriff was there on the spot, almost immediately tried to contact the broadcasters.

The Emergency Alert System failed on both ends. They called the broadcasters. It turned out that most of the stations, I think six of the seven, were owned by one company, Clear Channel, out of state, and there was nobody there to answer the phone at night. So for quite a period of time, the public wasn't alerted to the presence of this cloud. There was a siren that went off. Everybody turned on their radio to try to hear what was going on, and there was nothing on the radio but oldies or country music. Nothing about what was happening, the threat that was coming to their community.

Scores of people were injured and three people died [edit: 1 person died and 300 were injured]due to the lack of warning.

For you free market ideologues, it is important to remember that the broadcast media's number one asset, the frequency spectrum that they broadcast over, is provided to them at no charge. The monetary value of this asset is estimated at more than $500 Billion. The only thing that is required of them is to serve the interests of their viewers/listeners. In other words, the profit motive is not supposed to be the main factor in determining programming. American democracy requires an informed electorate, which depends for news and information upon a fair, honest, accessible and accountable broadcast media.

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