A Former Broadcaster's Solution: Put An End To Paid Political Advertising

Americans are sold their politicians like they are sold soap. Recent Court decisions seem to have raised the stakes by allowing nearly anyone, even corporations, an unlimited right to spend money for political purposes - to influence the outcome of elections. Responsible broadcasters should take no part in this and responsible citizens and taxpayers should demand that their radio and television frequencies not be used as a crucial determinant in the electoral process. After all, the airwaves belong to all of us.

I was once a broadcaster - an owner. Some years ago I was an equity partner in US Radio. At the time we were the country's largest predominantly minority owned broadcasting company. At our peak we owned and operated about 30 radio stations from coast-to-coast. I also served as Vice President/General Manager of Radio Station WAOK, then the #1 station in Atlanta and for many years one of America's great radio stations. My broadcasting career covered decades, so I speak from some experience.

Although I was an "owner" I was always deeply aware that my actual equity was in the company we formed and not in the radio stations themselves. The FCC Act of 1934 never intended to deliver the means of broadcasting into the private hands of those holding the station license. We owned the legal authority to use the frequency, but not the physical frequency itself. Yes, I know, broadcasting is a multi-billion dollar industry and those licenses have been bought and sold by private companies and partnerships, often for enormous amounts of money. We eventually sold all our stations accordingly. I see no inconsistency there. But still, while our company belonged to its investors I never forgot that the airwaves were the property of the people and we had an obligation to serve the public interest. I believed that then and I still believe it today.

The FCC ought to require all stations - radio and television - to make time available, at no cost, to all candidates officially on the ballot for public office in the station's city of license and area served by the station's signal. This would also apply to candidates running in party primaries. There should be restrictions both as to when these announcements could be broadcast and the total number of spots. My suggestion is 100 thirty or sixty-second spots to be broadcast beginning no earlier than 60 days before the election. This free time would be available only to the candidate, not to his or her supporters. Additionally, no time at all should be available for sale either to the candidate or to anyone else in support of any candidate. In this way equal access would be guaranteed to all candidates with no advantage to anyone. It's time we got rid of paid political advertisements.

I understand the Court has ruled in Citizens United that just about anyone is entitled to spend money on behalf of candidates, but nowhere in that ruling does it require broadcasters to sell commercial time to anyone. The Supreme Court has never said that radio and television stations must sell time to anybody. Many have claimed such a right (believe me, I know!) and they have all been mistaken. Contrary to popular belief, there is simply no such thing as a constitutional right to advertise. And the right to spend (as in Citizens United) is not the same as the right to buy. The FCC already has the legal power to regulate paid political advertising. They should use that authority to put an end to the sale of commercial time for political purposes once and for all. They should require all who hold broadcast licenses to make free time available and prohibit the sale of extra time to candidates and their supporters. Considering the value of these licenses this would hardly rise to the level of inconvenience. It would, however, significantly raise the level of public service.

I have nothing against advertising or free market capitalism. But, Americans who run for public office are not consumer products. They should not be sold to the public as if they were with an advantage to those with the most money to spend. Station owners who license the public airwaves, and have the ability to operate at a profit, and then sell those licenses for a capital gain, have an obligation to serve the public interest. They already provide news, weather, and other information programming in fulfillment of that license requirement. They should also contribute to the public discourse and dialogue about elections and candidates without having to generate more revenue. The availability of free time to candidates combined with the prohibition on others buying additional time would eliminate the fundamental unfairness of "selling candidates" like so many hamburgers, automobiles or bottles of beer. Paid political advertising on radio and TV should become a thing of the past.