Right's Reign on Talk Radio Called 'Structural Imbalance'

By Randy Hall | July 7, 2008 | 8:23 PM EDT

(CNSNews.com) - Charging that "right-wing talk reigns supreme on America's airwaves," two liberal groups on Thursday called for increased government regulation and greater diversity of commercial radio station owners to "close the gap" between the amount of conservative and "progressive" talk.

An analyst with a conservative media watchdog group responded by calling the organizations' recommendations an example of "amazing liberal hypocrisy."

"There's very little free speech and free choice in a market system that pushes one-sided information 90 percent of the time," said John Halpin, a senior fellow with the Center for American Progress (CAP) and one of the authors of a new report, entitled "The Structural Imbalance of Political Talk Radio."

Speaking during a telephone news conference, Halpin said his organization and the media reform group Free Press carried out two statistical analyses -- one examining the news/talk stations run by the largest owners of commercial stations and another looking at all 65 news/talk outlets in the country's top five markets.

"In each case, we found overwhelming evidence of complete conservative dominance of the political talk programming at both the station-by-station and market-by-market level," he said.

According to Halpin, these surveys produced several key findings:
    In the spring of 2007, of the 257 news/talk stations owned by the top five commercial station owners, 91 percent of the total weekday talk radio programming was conservative and only nine percent progressive;
    Each weekday, 2,570 hours and 15 minutes of conservative talk are broadcast on these stations, compared to 254 hours of progressive talk;
    A total of 76 percent of the news/talk programming in the top 10 radio markets is conservative, while 24 percent is progressive, including the recently relaunched Air America network; and
    In four of the top 10 markets - Dallas, Houston, Philadelphia and Atlanta - progressive talk is broadcast only two hours or less each weekday.
Derek Turner, research director of Free Press, said "the potential one-sidedness on the radio dial in terms of political programming is strongly and directly related to ownership and market structure."

Turner argued that "increasing diversity and localism in ownership will produce more diverse speech [and] more choice for listeners."

Mark Lloyd, another CAP senior fellow, attributed the "imbalance" to "the breakdown in the Federal Communications Commission regulatory system during the Reagan administration in the 1980s and the elimination of caps on ownership in telecommunications during the 1990s."

'Public steward'

Lloyd stressed that CAP and Free Press are not joining the Democrats in Congress who want to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine, a federal regulation that required broadcasters to present both sides of a controversial issue.

"Our goal is not less speech, but more speech," said Free Press Policy Director Ben Scott. "We want more voices on the radio."

He recommended that local and national caps on the ownership of commercial radio stations be restored "to reduce consolidation. It's not going to hurt anybody's business. It's still going to be a very profitable industry if you can only own 10 percent of the stations in a market."

Also, the organizations called on the government to reduce the commercial broadcasting license period from eight years to three. To ensure that local needs are being met and diverse opinions aired, owners would be required to "get feedback from the local community."

In a further recommendation, "we have to acknowledge that broadcasters have public service responsibilities. They broadcast over the public airwaves [which are] worth billions of dollars." In return, "these broadcasters are public stewards. They have to give us our money's worth" in community service.

Scott pointed out that "Verizon Wireless pays $5 billion or more to be able to use the public airwaves however they like." By contrast, "the broadcasters pay zero, and therefore, we need that billion dollars' worth of public service. Right now, they're not giving it to us."

And if station owners choose not to do so, Scott warned, "then we're going to have to get the money from them just like we get the money from all the other licensees of public airwaves." The money raised from such fines, he said, could be used "to promote the public media."

Tim Graham, director of media analysis with the conservative Media Research Center - the parent organization of Cybercast News Service - criticized both the report and recommendations.

"This study has huge holes in it," Graham said - the biggest of which "is excluding public radio talk shows. It's simply inaccurate to argue there's little or no progressive talk in major markets with National Public Radio affiliates airing Diane Rehm's show, or 'Fresh Air with Terry Gross,' or the other national and local left-leaning talk programs."

Also, Graham said, "for CAP and Free Press to argue that commercial broadcasters should pay fees to public broadcasting for a lack of balance - and then raising no question whatsoever about the tilt or the need for balance within public broadcasting - shows amazing liberal hypocrisy.

"In fact, Free Press has vociferously opposed any congressional attempt to question the balance of public broadcasting as 'partisan meddling,'" he added. "So what do they call their lobbying?"

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