Reflecting on my 24 years hosting a radio talk show, I realize once again how timing is everything in life. In 1984, when I worked Saturday nights and as a vacation fill-in, talk radio was pretty primitive. There was no Internet, no cell phones, not even fax machines. The programs we did back then were drastically limited, both in who was likely to call in and in the ways we hosts collected news and opinion pieces to talk about on the air. The callers were stay-at-homes, the proverbial little old ladies in tennis shoes, or, late at night, insomniacs of one sort or another.
One long overnight shift during which I filled an ashtray with cigarette butts and tried to attract someone on the phone before my voice gave out was made bearable only because, for some reason I can't remember, the talk turned to deer hunting, and early rising hunters responded in droves. There were times when I walked down the hallway to the men's room during a news break and threw cold water in my face, asking myself why I had decided to do this talk show thing.
Suddenly, things got better, and it all had to do with timing. Technological developments made the old medium of AM radio part of the new, interactive media. We were off and running, but we wouldn't have been had the Fairness Doctrine not been rescinded. This was a policy of the Federal Communications Commission enacted in 1949. It mandated that holders of broadcast licenses present any controversial issues of public importance in a manner that was "honest, equitable and balanced." In 1987, the Fairness Doctrine was abolished and politically oriented talk radio became a reality. Good for me. Good for conservatives who were delighted to find opinions harmonious with their own views available on the radio. Then, as now, there was a liberal tilt to what we call the mainstream media. Most radio talk shows, and virtually all of the successful ones, were politically conservative. Liberals - oh, that's right, they're now calling themselves "progressives" - don't much like that and they've been itching to shut us up. They want radio stations to air left-wing shows even though they are almost always ratings disasters. Air America Media was a lefty answer to Limbaugh and Hannity and local hosts like me, featuring a line-up of "progressive" hosts like comedian Al Franken, the newly minted U.S Senator from Minnesota. Despite much hype, it failed, declaring bankruptcy in 2006. New owners are trying to breathe life into the model, but the market may not exist for it. Listeners don't like liberal talk radio. Liberals like public radio.
In the age of Obama, certainly something can be done to circumvent the market place decisions on politically driven radio. Can't it? Democrats in Congress, emboldened by the repudiation of the Republicans in 2008, muttered about restoring the Fairness Doctrine, but they were met by vigorous resistance and reluctantly backed off that idea. Instead, they are now trying more surreptitious methods to muzzle dissent on the air.
The czar-smitten Obama administration has now named a "diversity czar" at the FCC. His name is Mark Lloyd and he's a doozy. Alarmed Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa wrote a letter to the FCC chairman, Julius Genachowski, expressing his concerns about Lloyd and his writings on political talk radio and the Fairness Doctrine. While a fellow at a liberal think tank, Lloyd was one of the authors of a paper titled "The Structural Imbalance of Political Talk Radio." Blogger Bobby Eberle points out some of the "remedies" Lloyd thinks appropriate for fixing the ills of talk radio as it now exists. One is to restore local and national caps on the number of commercial radio stations a single company is allowed to own. Another is to ensure greater local accountability over radio licensing, which means flexing those community-organizing muscles of ACORN and other left-wing pressure groups. And he would like to require radio companies which fail to abide by "enforceable public interest obligations" to pay a compulsory fee to support, you guessed it, public broadcasting.
It's clear that if at all possible, the newly empowered left, angry that the listening public prefers conservative radio, will force radio stations to air unpopular liberal programs, the market place be damned.