In the late 1940’s, the Federal Communications Commission decided that it was more likely to grant and renew licenses to broadcasters who offered up more than one point of view to their listeners. That decision came to be known as the Fairness Doctrine.
The doctrine was intended to serve the public interest by having broadcasters offer the public more than one side to controversial issues.
But the Fairness Doctrine didn’t last. With its constitutionality in question, the doctrine was repealed in 1987. Not long after that, conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh took to the AM radio dial and became a hit.
It wasn’t long before other conservative talkers followed his lead. They became so successful they pushed most liberal talkers off the dial. Today, according to Talkers Magazine, 91 percent of talk radio on the AM commercial dial is conservative.
Some say that’s reason enough for the return of the Fairness Doctrine. But, most experts say that’s not likely to happen. There is a new push, however, called “localism.”
Simply put, it means radio stations would be forced to carry more local programming that appeals to local audiences. Right now, big broadcasting companies like Clear Channel Communications, CBS, and others own hundreds of radio stations across the country. They often program syndicated, national shows featuring conservative talkers like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck.
Some say that kind of national programming is not serving some audiences across the country. Randi Rhodes, a syndicated progressive talker, is based in Washington D.C., where 93 percent of voters voted for Barack Obama. Yet, only a small percentage of AM talk radio is liberal or progressive.
“If you know that you live in a town where everybody votes Democratic and all you have on your radio is conservative talk, then you can see how localism isn't part of the equation in media programming,” Rhodes says.
The idea of requiring radio stations to carry more local programming is appealing – even for some conservative talkers – but there is a sense there is something else behind the idea of localism.
“In effect what they want to do, is they want to program the radio station,” says Bob Durgin, a conservative talker in Pennsylvania. “They want to tell the people what they want to hear. They don’t want the people hearing what they want to hear, and they want people to hear more liberal radio.”
Durgan says liberals want it all, even though they have plenty now. He says Hollywood, newspapers, FM, satellite radio and the mainstream media all give voice to liberals.
Michael Harrison is the editor of Talkers Magazine, an online publication that reports on talk radio. He agrees with Durgin. “There’s no bias against liberals. There is bias against people who don’t have track records of success, of ratings and revenue.”
Randi Rhodes, a progressive talker, who has had success, strongly disagrees. She says she has no interest in shutting down conservative talk radio. She says millions of Americans get their political talk from AM radio, and it’s unseemly that 91 percent of AM radio offers conservative voices – even in cities where the population is mostly liberal.
“I do want to be on their stations,” she says. “I ... want a crack at their audience, and let me live or die by the success or failure, but I don’t have that. I don’t have access.”