Friday, June 22, 2007

THE WASHINGTON TIMES A report from a liberal think tank yesterday criticized the “right-wing domination of talk radio,” saying the current landscape does not serve all Americans.

In a report titled “The Structural Imbalance of Political Talk Radio,” the Center for American Progress concluded that 91 percent of weekday talk radio is conservative, compared with liberal content at 9 percent. The group, which said it analyzed 257 news and talk stations owned by the five biggest radio broadcasters, calls for stricter media-ownership limits and public-interest requirements.

“There is little free speech or free choice in a market system that pushes out one-sided information 90 percent of the time on the radio,” said John Halpin, a senior fellow at the center. “Radio stations are licensed to operate in the public interest. Promoting one point of view over all others does not meet any reasonable public-interest standard.”

The study also analyzed all commercial news and talk stations in the top 10 markets, where it deemed 76 percent of programming conservative and 24 percent liberal.

Democrats seized on the findings, touting the study as further evidence that government intervention to make the media more “fair” is needed.

“The American people should have a wide array of news sources available to them. The more opinions they can hear, the more news sources they can learn from, the better able they will be to make decisions,” said Jeff Lieberson, spokesman for Rep. Maurice D. Hinchey, New York Democrat.

Mr. Hinchey is preparing to reintroduce his Media Ownership Reform Act, which among other proposals calls for a return to the “Fairness Doctrine,” a long-held requirement that broadcasters give equal time to opposing views when covering political issues. The doctrine was repealed in 1987 because it violated the First Amendment.

The legislation didn’t make it out of committee the last time around, but Mr. Lieberson said the congressman is “politically realistic” and might look to attach pieces of the bill to other legislation.

Talk radio has even come under fire from the right recently. Sen. Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, complaining about the unpopularity of the immigration bill, told the New York Times, “Talk radio is running America. We have to deal with that problem.”

Liberal talk-radio network Air America, which was bailed out of bankruptcy in January by real estate tycoon Stephen L. Green, likened the talk-show situation to racism.

“If it was wrong and self-wounding for white baseball owners to refuse to hire black players in the 1940s, until Branchy Rickey made history with Jackie Robinson, then it’s wrong today for a handful of mega-owners to refuse to provide diverse voices to the diverse communities who listen to radio,” said Mark Green, president of Air America.

Conservatives and talk-radio types dismissed the study, both challenging its methodology and calling its recommendations unconstitutional.

“Nothing in this report addresses the tremendous impact that public radio has,” said Chris Berry, general manager of D.C. conservative talk station WMAL-AM (630). “The fact is, many people, even NPR listeners, consider public radio if not liberal, then certainly in the category of ‘progressive.’ ”

In the Arbitron winter ratings, D.C. public radio outlet WETA-FM (90.9) scored a 4.9 share — although it changed to classical music in the middle of the ratings period — and WAMU-FM (88.5) had a 4.3 share. Together, the public stations top the most-listened-to commercial station, urban WHUR-FM (96.3), which had a 6.9 share.

Moreover, Mr. Berry noted, the report does not include morning FM radio shows that are topical or cover political issues, especially programs targeted at black listeners.

WMAL is owned by Citadel Broadcasting, one of the five major broadcasters examined in the Center for Progress study, whose results argue that Clear Channel Communications has the most liberal talk content in absolute terms — 229 hours a week, or 14 percent of its programming. As a percentage, CBS devotes the most time to liberal talk at 26 percent; followed by Clear Channel at 14 percent and Citadel, Cumulus and Salem all at zero percent liberal (and 100 percent conservative).

“I think that it basically is saying that conservative talk radio is dominated by conservatives,” said Michael Harrison, editor of Talkers magazine. “I don’t know what it means. If it’s an attempt to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine, that’s unconstitutional. If it’s to try to end consolidation, it’ll create a bunch of independent radio stations that will go out of business because of the economics of 2007.”

Among its prescriptions, the study calls for broadcast licensees to demonstrate how they are serving the public interest.

Both Mr. Harrison and Mr. Berry questioned how such requirements, as well as the Fairness Doctrine, might be enforced.

“My biggest question there is who decides what’s fair,” Mr. Berry said. “To have someone who in some way is policing the airwaves like this violates the very tenets of the First Amendment.”

Dennis Wharton, spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters, which represents radio companies, called “the notion that radio caters to only one political party or one ideology” “simply fantasy.”

Added Mr. Berry: “If liberal talk-radio stations were viable, there would be hundreds of them. If people don’t want to listen to conservative talk radio, they don’t have to.”

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