The Talk-O-Sphere: Why the Empire is Striking Back with the Fairness Doctrine

NEW YORK-It's pushing 1 a.m. at an East Side smoke-easy called Merchants NY, when Steve Gill tells me why he is delighted that he lost his race for Congress in 1994.

With another 800 votes he would have won, but, he says, Tennessee would have lost. "If I was sitting in Congress right now, Tennessee would have an income tax," he said.

Gill is now a popular radio talk show host, whose 16 affiliates blanket the Volunteer State. He transformed his popular statewide radio show audience into an activist network that repeatedly ringed the state capitol building with angry voters, protesting the proposed state income tax. Ultimately, Gill's listener-activists (and those of other Tennessee talk radio shows) blocked the bi-partisan consensus of the state's governor and legislature to enact the tax, which seemed inevitable only months earlier.

Every major newspaper, civic group and network TV affiliate had supported the income tax, but they were no match for the "people power" which Gill is certain he could never have rallied as a congressman.

Both he and Tennessee are better off when he is on the radio, he concludes.

After Gill was approached about running in 2008, he asked his wife how she would vote. "Undecided," she said. Why? "Half the pay [of radio] and double the expenses [a house in DC and Tennessee]."

Talk radio is for conservatives what trial lawyers are for liberals: a source of influence, activist ideas and new talent. And, like law, radio pays well too.

While a lot of ink has been spilled about the political power of the Blogosphere-the press has largely ignored the grassroots power of the Talkosphere. Talk radio is now what bloggers may become in 2008-a political force to be reckoned with.

The power of Gill and the hundreds of talk-show hosts across the country like him-hosts with audiences that act like armies-is scaring several elites simultaneously, sending a frisson of fear through the media and political power pyramids. Establishment media-big-city newspapers, public television, network television and national magazines-don't like the idea of competition. It's not simply that they fear losing audience or advertising dollars. What annoys editors most is the informed second-guessing and blog-style feedback coming from radio listeners. "Why aren't you covering this story? Why did you leave out this salient fact?"

How did this scary talk-radio monster emerge? Its "Dr. Frankenstein" was named Mark S. Fowler, President Reagan's FCC chairman, who led the fight to end the so-called "Fairness Doctrine," a 1967 provision that required radio and TV outlets to provide "equal time" to any "responsible opposing view."

This historic provision had made it too costly, in terms of lost airtime and ad dollars, to run anything that might trigger a "fairness doctrine" response. So commercial radio became an opinion dead-zone, bland morning chatter on one end and "shock jock" antics at the other.

Didn't the "fairness doctrine" limit the free speech rights of broadcasters? Of course it did -- but back then, the fact that government-licensed broadcasters and spectrum was believed to be limited provided cover for courts to side with the FCC. (Today, of course, digital frequencies are poised to create a spectrum that is practically infinite.)

The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the doctrine in a 1969 case (Red Lion Broadcasting v. FCC), but later seemed to have second thoughts. Chief Justice Warren Burger, writing a unanimous Supreme Court decision (Miami Herald Publishing Co. v. Tornillo) in 1974, found "government-enforced right of access inescapably dampens the vigor and limits the variety of public debate." By 1984, the Supreme Court explicitly backed away from the scarcity of spectrum argument as a rationale for the fairness doctrine, in FCC v. League of Women Voters. The appeals courts and the Fowler FCC began chipping away at the doctrine. By August 1987, the FCC had abolished it-except for two tiny provisions that lingered until 2000, when the courts finished it off.

Congress never liked Fowler's crusade against the "fairness doctrine." It tried to head off the FCC's planned repeal, by passing a measure in June 1987, enshrining the doctrine in law. President Reagan vetoed it. Democrats tried again in 1991, only to be dissuaded by a veto threat from President George H.W. Bush. Following their 2006 triumph, Democrats are once again considering restoring the "fairness doctrine." Once again, we can expect a Bush veto.

Fowler, in effect, created a market for talk radio-and slowly changed the media climate. In the "fairness doctrine" days, a big-city newspaper editor could sniff and say: "We're not covering it because no one else is." Now he has to debate the story on the merits and - horrors! - sometimes cover politically inconvenient news stories.

Public and network news, which largely follow the lead of the front pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post, share, by osmosis, their discomfort with talk radio. (Just ask Dan Rather what he thinks of The Hugh Hewitt Show.)

Two other key members of the media establishment-National Public Radio and Manhattan-based book publishers-are on the fence when it comes to talk radio.

While NPR doesn't have a "Rush Room" in its sprawling Massachusetts Avenue headquarters and its executives probably don't drive home listening to Mark Levin or Michael Savage, the network knows that bringing back the so-called "Fairness Doctrine" will not be good for "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered," let alone some of its liberal lions like talk show host Diane Rehm. Would NPR really want to air a "responsible opposing view" for every stray comment on its airwaves?

NPR, by the way, is proof that the old saying that "liberals can't make it on talk radio" is dead wrong. It is just that liberal radio audience already tunes it to NPR; they don't need another network.

Liberal hosts who manage to attract an audience on commercial radio, like Randi Rhodes, do it by being very, very funny. At Talker's, a yearly confab for the talk radio industry, she quipped: "I thought it would be just like the old days, with Don Imus working the room... except this time he would be picking up cups and plates."

For what it's worth, Air America, the ultimate attempt at lefty talk radio, is against the 'fairness doctrine.' Air America Radio personality Thom Hartmann writes in "CTA Aircheck," an industry publication:

"The "progressive has failed" frame is simply wrong. In just three short years, our format has gone from a small handful of progressive stations to 10% of the talk radio content of this country. If I'd started a soda pop business in my garage and in three years had taken 10% of Coca Cola's market, my picture would be on the cover of Forbes! Nobody thinks of Apple as a failure, but they only have 4.8% of the U.S. computer market, and that's taken them 20 years! What if a new music format had taken 10% of the radio market in just three years? Everybody would be talking about it, it'd be moving onto bigger and bigger sticks, and programmers would be figuring out how to clone it in every local market across the country! Conservative Talk radio didn't catch on instantly, either. We don't need no stinkin' Fairness Doctrine, and we don't need to be lectured by failing talk show hosts. We just need a few more industry pros to take seriously the very real accomplishments and the ongoing potential of this format as it matures. Add to that a few shots at bigger sticks, industry jargon for radio towers dedicated sales forces, and decent imaging and promotion, and maybe we'll be 20% within the next three years!"

Manhattan-based publishers have a love-hate relationship with talk radio. While the major houses are peopled with liberals who find little to like on the most popular (conservative) radio shows, they know that talk radio alone can transform an also-ran into a bestseller.

Sandy Frazier is a public relations maven who specializes in pushing books to talk radio hosts. "Oh my God! It's my whole life!" she exclaims, explaining that she has been promoting books for almost a decade. "There is more potential for raising book sales on talk radio than any other media, including cable TV," she said, "unless your name is Oprah." She cited one sleeper book, "An Enormous Crime," about American POWs left behind in Indochina, that debuted at number 34 on The New York Tines best-seller list-without a single TV mention or review in a major publication. "It was all radio," she said.

Establishment politicians hate talk radio for the same reason they loathe the National Rifle Association; they fear a force that can motivate millions of voters who do not want to compromise on a particular political principle.

At Talkers, there was a lot of debate about just how free free-speech is. Of course, the context was Don Imus.

James Derby, the program manager at KLX, Lars Larson's home, said the station has two time delays on nationally syndicated series. "How many does Mark Master [president of Talk Radio Network] have on Savage? Four or five?" Master's response was inaudible, but funny.

Depressingly, Heather Cohen, director of programming of GreenStone Media, seemed to sum up the consensus: "When in doubt, leave it out." "Employers should leave us to find if Imus did his job," she said. One common observation from radio personalities in the audience was that Imus was a known quality. He had been a shock jock for decades. In fact he was paid to be edgy.

It wasn't the advertisers or the executives, or even Al Sharpton, that cost Imus his job. It was political correctness at CBS in New York. Perry Michael Simon, the news/talk editor of All Access, pointed out that CBS employees handed out a book called "Words Can Hurt" and circulated a petition to end Imus' CBS career. Next they brought in agent provocateur, David Brock and a blogger who has been documenting Imus excesses for over a decade.

Perhaps the strongest voice for Imus and for free speech came from David Bernstein, the vice president of Air America. "I don't mean to be the contrarian, but the dude got f-----d." After the session I talked to Bernstein, and he said he was surprised that on a panel of distinguished radio hosts and executives he was the only one to take the free speech position. When I asked him why conservatives weren't more critical of employees that demanded Imus' demise, he said "I don't understand conservatives." He thought that self-censorship could be as bad as the "fairness doctrine." If CBS employees have a problem with Imus' words, "they should leave."

If it weren't for the continual spectre of the Fairness Doctrine, the future of talk radio couldn't be brighter. Satellite radio, iPods and cell phones will soon be the dominant supplier of music. "Music on FM is dead. What happens in three years when every cell phone is a smart iPod?" asks Mark Masters, the chief executive of Talk Radio Network. Or ask the question this way, how many people carry a radio? And how many people carry a cell phone?

The night before Sean Hannity had bought a round of drinks for a clutch of radio superstars and executives, and I tagged along. At that gathering, Masters was even more bullish when we went outside to smoke a cigar. He imagined a day in the next few years, he said, when talk radio is delivered in FM stereo and doesn't just comment on the news -- but drives it.

Only Congress can stop him now. But the truth is that even if they are foolish enough to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine and overcome a presidential veto, such a law couldn't successfully stem the audience surge towards talk radio. It would merely simply redirect the tide to the Internet, where Congress has next to no power at all.

You can try to fight the future - but you can't win.