Standing Up to Talk Radio by Harry Cowan
Most people don't know that we have special rights when it comes to local radio and TV, but we do. Despite what Big corporate media tells us again and again, Broadcasting operates under unique rules designed to protect the public interest. Let me explain why Broadcasting enjoys special treatment in the name of the public.
Newspapers are private enterprise: anyone with enough capital can start a newspaper and write what they will. Cable TV is also private enterprise: when people write a check to Comcast or Direct TV, they pay private contractors, via cable or satellite, to bring programs from Playboy to Disney into their homes.
But broadcasting, local radio and TV, is a public/private partnership: the public owns the airwaves needed for transmission; private business own the buildings, equipment, etc. needed to broadcast programming. When private business goes into broadcasting, it makes a deal with the public: a free license from the Federal Communication Commission - if it agrees to "serve the public interest, convenience, and necessity."
Broadcasting also differs from newspapers and cable in that the number of frequencies available in one community are few, so only a limited number of local stations are possible. Physical scarcity is the foundation of all broadcast law.
Then there's the concept of "private censorship." Because of the physical scarcity of frequencies, the Courts say big corporations who are licensed to broadcast over our airwaves have no right to prevent people of the community access to being heard on the radio.
There are two radio markets in the U.S. I've been closely watching which highlight these concepts of physical scarcity and private censorship. One is Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where five local Conservative Talk Radio hosts dominate 100,000 watts of radio power, (and to whom Republicans like Alberta Darling credit their political victories.)
The other is my adopted hometown, Sacramento, where Clear Channel Communications broadcasts about 190 hours per week of national one-sided political talk over three giant stations, KFBK-AM, KGBY-FM and AMFM Holding's KSTE-AM Clear Channel management disputed that number at a recent meeting with Media Action Center, Sacramento Media Group, and Occupy Sacramento. But (now former) Clear Channel GM Jeff Holden told us he is very comfortable airing only one-sided political talk on three giant stations - during an election year.
But what Holden may or may not have known is that, in the 60 days prior to an election, if broadcasters sell or give time to one major political party candidate or its supporters, they must, by law, offer comparable time to the opposing major political party candidate or its supporters. (See Section 315a of the Communications Act and the Zapple Doctrine.)
The Media Action Center has been monitoring talk radio stations owned by Clear Channel and Journal Communications in Milwaukee since May 9th, the first day of the Walker/Barrett campaign in Wisconsin. We will release detailed results of that monitoring May 22nd, but suffice it to say that supporters of one major political party are getting short shrift, and they have been complaining to the Talk stations demanding equal time, and they will soon be complaining -- loudly -- to the Federal Communications Commission to immediately enforce comparable time laws under Zapple. (The FCC is the law enforcement agency on broadcasting issues.)
But those Talk Radio giants are also violating the First Amendment rights of supporters of candidates whom they are not allowed to be heard in the midst of the election. "Private censorship" comes down to a matter of access, says the Supreme Court of the United States.
In Red Lion Broadcasting v. FCC, 1969, the Supreme Court made two key rulings: "the First Amendment is relevant to broadcasting, but it is the right of the viewer and listener, not the broadcaster, which is paramount." And, "the First Amendment does not protect private censorship by broadcasters who are licensed by the Government to use a scarce resource which is denied to others."
The giants have argued against this in court, but to no avail. In 2011, Clear Channel lawyers argued that given the internet, the concept of physical scarcity was no longer needed. The U.S.Third Circuit Court of Appeals shot them down: "The abundance of non-broadcast media does not render the broadcast spectrum any less scarce. The Supreme Court's justification for the scarcity doctrine remains as true today as it was in 2004 --- indeed, in 1975 --- many more people would like to access the [broadcast spectrum] than can be accommodated."
The imbalance we are seeing on the publicly owned airwaves in Milwaukee and Sacramento and elsewhere proves that broadcasters are stamping out the First Amendment rights of liberals and the rest of us, not the other way around, as right wing talkers in every corner of the country would have us believe. Yes, it is censorship for the government to tell hosts what they may or may not say. But when Clear Channel and other radio license holders put one political point of view on our public airwaves to the exclusion of all others, that is private censorship, and lucky for us and the people of Wisconsin, in the 60 days before an an election, that is illegal.