Radio's Unfairness Doctrine

Back in the Reagan years the move began to repeal what was thought to be radio's burdensome Fairness Doctrine.

No need for a provision requiring equal time for other sides of the issues -- so the thinking went. The marketplace would take care of itself. There were enough voices.

What followed was some of radio's best talk franchises -- The Rush Limbaugh's and the Sean Hannity's and many, many others in between that led to the golden age of political talk radio.

A lot of stations made money and the value of radio properties grew -- in part because talk radio thrived. Talk radio (all news and later sports) helped to save the AM band when young folks found FM.

Now House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, wants the Fairness Doctrine back on the books and she seems hell bent to win passage. If the Democrats win the presidency in the Fall and elect more House and Senate members (not a sure thing), Pelosi's plan is possible.

Limbaugh is now a $400 million man thanks to his new Clear Channel deal and Hannity will eventually be a $200 million conservative talk show host. But since the Fairness Doctrine was erased, talk radio has predominantly presented the conservative viewpoint. In fact, built on the shoulders of Limbaugh, talk stations owe him for their successful formats.

That may still be alright because the left had much more media available to its point of view. So, you could say it was a push.

It's curious that progressive or left leaning talk radio has just recently begun to come into its own. But it's not the same. And Air America has been a failure in a business sense at least as the bastion of the left.

Talk radio may owe its financial and listener success to the elimination of The Fairness Doctrine but now it's possible that radio may suffer from the one-sided approach to issue-oriented programming. Possible.

Times have changed.

The political pendulum is swinging back in the other direction. New media, the Internet -- make it possible for talk radio to become a caricature of itself -- and its past successes.

Don't get me wrong -- I'm not looking for Limbaugh to give equal time (although I sense he has been doing that more lately).

It will not surprise me if the Fairness Doctrine returns and I wouldn't get all that upset about it.

Balancing issues, programs, talk show hosts -- to encompass a wider viewpoint may not be crazy (even if it might be a left wing plot). It could be good broadcasting. The kind that gets even higher ratings.

Not convinced?

The late Tim Russert, a Democrat, was known for carefully balancing his Meet The Press shows. Where the big three national TV networks tend to lean left, Russert bent over backwards to give unbiased exposure to issues and political figures from the right. And he was an equal opportunity questioner.

When Russert died he was sincerely eulogized from the left as well as the right. They lost a man who really tried to be fair to both sides. And many conservatives said so.

And at the time of Russert's death, Meet the Press was far and away the number one Sunday morning political show -- and a huge NBC Universal moneymaker.

Equal time can be good for business.

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