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Who Killed the Liberal Radio Star?

Fewer and more-corporate minds now make programming decisions for much of the country's listening audience. It is a wonder that modern talk radio has been recreated in their image?
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Fairness Doctrine Alert! Conservative commentators like Jonah Goldberg would like discussion about the structural imbalance of political talk radio to begin and end with the flagellation of the dread telecommunications principle that dares suggest that broadcasters who license the public airwaves have the responsibility to serve the public good. Of course, the discussion raised by a new report that finds that conservative content has decimated progressive talk on American radio can't end there, though that requires that we politely ignore Goldberg's suggestion that liberals "suck it up for Pete's sake."

Polling that just came out today finds that most younger Americans are leaning left, preferring the Democratic party to the Republican party at rate of 58% to 38%. Twenty-eight percent of them self-identify as liberal before their 30th birthday. And yet they are coming of age in a country where they are ten times as likely to hear a conservative like Rush Limbaugh on stations held by major owners as they are to hear a liberal voice like Rachel Maddow's. That wasn't always the way the world worked. Indeed, before the 1996 Telecommunications Act caused a complete upheaval of the media ownership landscape, radio stations were held by a handful of mostly local owners here, a handful there. Before '96, Clear Channel was a small San Antonio-based company getting by with 40 stations. In the subsequent 11 years, Clear Channel has grown into a media behemoth owning nearly 1,300 radio stations and many thousands of billboards from coast-to-coast.

Boiling down media ownership to a thick reduction means that fewer and more-corporate-minded minds now make programming decisions for much of the country's listening audience. It is a wonder that modern talk radio has been recreated in their image and likeness?

The new report from the Center for American Progress and Free Press airs the possibility that talk radio just isn't a medium conducive to liberal discourse. You'll hear this again and again, and indeed, I hear it often from well-meaning lefty friends: talk radio doesn't appeal to their inner-id or amygdala. But where is the evidence that this is true, that the liberal mind doesn't value on-air political banter in the same way that it might get jazzed about a university lecture or those wine-soaked dinner parties we like to see ourselves regularly engaged in?

A corollary to the question appeal of talk radio to liberals is the question of talent. Maybe it's true that liberals are plain no good at producing engaging, entertaining talk radio, and the American public that voted for both John Kerry and Al Gore at a rate of 48% just doesn't want to listen to all that bather about improving the lot of all Americans, banding together to meet our common challenges, tapping into the better angels of our nature, yadda yadda yadda.

But with the talk radio landscape today, that argument is the same as the one in the pre-Title IX world that girls just aren't into sports. With the top-down conservative programming of American radio, liberal talkers don't have a bush league in which to develop and hone their game. Talk radio is a skill polished to a sheen by practice. Hosts don't come out of the womb endowed with Rush-like abilities to gab, debate, and discuss. Much like running a Green Party candidate for President is getting a bit ahead of the game when there are few-to-none Greenies as mayor, city council member, or governor, expecting liberal talkers to perform at the highest levels of the game when they're shut out of intramural play in local markets is unreasonable and, at the risk of sounding like a liberal, downright unfair.

Some conservative voices in the political blogosphere (a space, by the way, where the supposed liberal aversion to words and argument disappears -- turns out, in fact, they enjoy it a great deal) used the recent Center for American Progress/Free Press report to once again raise the specter of the Fairness Doctrine. That principle, which guided federal telecommunications policy until it met the blunt end of the Reagan Administration, is rooted in the idea that the radio spectrum is a public resource and licensees should profit from it with the public good in mind. As difficult as it can be to watch Extra and see the social benefit of Mark McGrath's reportage on the genuineness of Paris Hilton's post-prison smile, the idea that the public airwaves should do the public some good is still a guiding principle in the telecommunications policy world. Even the Federal Communications Commission dominated by Bush appointees pays (limited) fealty to the idea. In the conservative blogosphere, however, it's common to hear the sort of sentiment expressed by the National Review Online's Goldberg: "Yes, yes, I know that they are public airwaves, blah blah blah." Radio is yet one more commodity. Let the hoarding begin.

Ten hours of conservative programming vs. one hour of left-leaning talk is difficult to justify by appealing to the idea that conservatives are simply more talented on-air, or that the listening public is just so enthralled with a near-constant discussion on the dangers of illegal immigration. And indeed, the CAP/FP report is more persuasive when it is descriptive, not prescriptive. The blogosphere hasn't yet issued much of a challenge on the report's actual findings, and if taken as fact they are indeed striking. Using as a research pool the news/talk radio stations owned by the top five station owners -- CBS, Clear Channel, Citadel, Cumulus, and Salem -- 2,570 hours of conservative talk radio go out to the nation each weekday, while 254 hours of progressive talk are broadcast. On 92% of these stations, no left-leaning content is aired at all. At the risk of sounding snarky, I'd suggest that the CAP/Free Press folks could have saved the man-hours spent researching the report by instead just getting into their cars and attempting to tune into a decent talk radio signal. That's how I recently found myself spending a week driving around Louisiana listening to the sweet dulcet tones of Sean Hannity. Ten-to-one is probably about the ratio where many commuting Americans would have intuitively pegged conservative radio dominance.

In a certain conservative schematic of how American media works, liberals dominate newspapers, television, Hollywood, blogging, podcasting, text-messaging, and fliers posted on the supermarket bulletin board. Yet somehow in the free-market "content is king" radio space, liberal messages fail miserably. The CAP/FP report raises a durn good question -- why is it that so many America's radio frequencies are dedicated to the likes of Limbaugh and so few to left-leaning listening? But rather than debate that question, conservatives like Goldberg prefer evoking the Fairness Doctrine (!) boogeyman, and scaring us right back into listening submission.

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