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Monday, April 6, 2009

Life in a Nearly-Monopolized Radio Market

Maybe this makes me some sort of geek, but I have to admit it -- I’m a talk radio junkie. I suppose it’s symptomatic of some larger issue of being an information junkie.

My talk radio habit first developed during an interval between my undergraduate and grad school days, when I had a nighttime job that involved a lot of time in the car. Talk radio, especially the all-night broadcasts on NPR, helped keep me sane and prevented my neurons from atrophying during those long, dull hours.

The habit has stuck with me. I don’t have as many long blocks of uninterrupted, solitary time to listen as I did back then, but when commuting, and in other situations ranging from washing dishes to blogging, I’ll use talk radio as my background soundtrack, when many other people would listen to music. A little weird, maybe, but, like I said -- it’s sort of an addiction.

When there are many options, I’m choosy about what I listen to. But when choices are limited I’ll listen to almost anything. Having been born and raised in the Washington D.C. area, and lived most of my adult life there, I grew accustomed to a lot of choice. Like Alice’s Restaurant, you can truly get just about anything you want from Washington radio. Both the A.M. and F.M. bands offer plenty of variety in news, talk, and information programming. There’s something to appeal to virtually any segment of the political and demographic spectrum.

On the far left side of the F.M. dial, you could find plenty of programming appealing to those of the left-leaning political persuasion, from the lefty yet still largely conventional NPR to the outer fringes of the Pacifica network. On the A.M. dial you’d of course find the usual suspects -- Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, and the like -- but plenty more to choose from as well, including centrist and liberal talk shows and a wide variety of business and finance programming.

NPR was usually my first choice when I was looking for a political talk fix, but I’d tune into the conservative shows on the A.M. side for a reality check on what the opposition was thinking. To satisfy my interest in finance and investing there was always the likes of Bob Brinker and the Motley Fool. And when I was in the mood for a little weirdness, there was Coast-to-Coast A.M.

But just a few years ago I made a pretty drastic geographic relocation, moving into a much less populous and more rural area with very limited radio offerings. There isn’t a single truly all-news station in the market. On the A.M. dial, you have basically two stations to choose from that are strong enough to cover most of the region. One is owned by Clear Channel Communications, the other by Cumulus Media, two examples of the few large conglomerates that have come to control such a large share of local radio markets around the country.

Nominally, both stations have a news/talk format, but in reality the news coverage is limited on both. One is all-news during morning and afternoon drive time, but carries major syndicated talk for the rest of the day -- Limbaugh, Savage, Hannity, etc.

The other starts the morning with a local news/talk show, but it’s much more talk than news. And it’s light talk, a more sedate version of a “morning zoo” type of program, slanted toward a quite conservative middle-aged male demographic. After the morning drive comes a local talk show that’s a bit more substantive in its political dialogue but decisively right-leaning, running until the Rush Limbaugh show starts. The rest of the Post-Rush day is filled by Hannity, Savage, and Coast-to-Coast.

On the FM side there’s an NPR affiliate, but the NPR programming it carries is actually very limited. Most of the day after Morning Edition consists of locally programmed classical music, with a short and somewhat quirky local news/talk show sandwiched in. The classical music takes a break starting at 3:00 p.m. for Fresh Air and resumes after All Things Considered. An alternate broadcast of all-day NPR talk is also available, but only to those with an HD Radio receiver.

When I first moved into this market in 2006, I started tuning in to Hannity and Savage during my evening commute home. I’d had some prior exposure to them back in Washington, but not much.

I didn’t end up paying a whole lot of attention to Hannity. He was easy to figure out, very “what you see is what you get” -- a fairly simple guy who, like me, came of age in the Reagan era but, unlike me, idolizes Reagan, looks back on his administration as some sort of golden age, and wants to get take our country’s politics back to the basics of Reagan’s principles.

Savage, on the other hand, was another matter -- a strange bird, in a class by himself, with a strange kind of charisma. It was easy to get drawn-in by the wry writ. And I found that there was a somewhat sympathetic dimension to his worldview. Think of Archie Bunker with a higher IQ and a PhD, looking back fondly at a simpler time when “girls were girls and men were men,” a time when immigrants who came to the country legally were welcome but expected to learn English.

Yes, I could take the point of his “borders, language, and culture” rubric. Secure borders are indeed important to our national security. And embracing the diversity of a nation that, after all, has from the beginning been a nation of immigrants, is not mutually exclusive with a reasonable expectation of an effort to learn the official language; with the idea that there is a core set of cultural values that, transcending ethnicity, defines what it means to be an American. Yes, I could take the point that more Americans should be offended by the some of the decadent elements of our popular culture that are so offensive to much of the Islamic world. Yes, I see the shallow hypocrisy of a celebrity like Sean Penn, who has benefited so richly from our free enterprise system, embracing Hugo Chavez.

But as I listened more I observed more areas of Savage’s rhetoric that venture into hatred. By characterizing an entire generation of liberals with such one-dimensional, caricature-like stereotypes as “red-diaper-doper-babies” and saying that “liberalism is a mental disorder,” he is encouraging a world view that dehumanizes a substantial portion of the population. And even worse, he is engaging in a kind of thinking that is itself characteristic of mental disorders. If you carry this far enough, you enter a realm of thinking, of simplistic derogatory labeling of groups, that has contributed to some of the greatest atrocities of history.

Yet in spite of all of this, I continue to listen now and then to Savage, Hannity, and the other conservative voices available to me in this market, because there is basically little else to listen to. And, yes -- I must admit that at times I have felt a rightward tug of their voices on my political thinking. No one is entirely invulnerable to the power of repetition, especially in an environment in which there is little chance for an alternative viewpoint to be heard. No, they certainly haven’t converted me, but the fact that I have even felt their tug is, for me, strong evidence of just how much power they indeed exert. So it’s troublesome to contemplate the reality that, in so many markets, they may be the only voices to be heard on talk radio.

I don’t have a problem, per se, with the power of these voices. I’m not a proponent of the return of “The Fairness Doctrine,” and was relieved when the Obama administration came out against it. Especially in a environment in which the executive and legislative branches are controlled by one party, there would be too few checks and balances on the potential for partisan abuse of a reincarnated Fairness Doctrine. As much as I disagree with much of what the likes of Savage, Hannity, and Limbaugh say, I wouldn’t want their voices silenced. I want to be able to hear them myself, at least as a reality check, and I want others to be able to hear them. But I want alternative voices, with alternative perspectives, to be available for the hearing as well.

There is also serious question in my mind as to whether the previous incarnation of the Fairness Doctrine was ever very effective, anyway. To my recollection, radio stations didn’t really need to do all that much to fulfill their obligations under the old requirement -- they could, for example, simply allocate 30 seconds at 3:00 on a Sunday morning for a quick rant by some local Lyndon LaRouche supporter.

There are other mitigating factors as well. In an environment that now includes cable television and the Internet, radio has been bumped down a few notches on the media food chain. Nevertheless, conservative talk radio seems to exert a powerful influence on certain demographic groups.

And that’s the problem. Moving into this kind of market made me realize how limited the information choices of much of the country outside of major metropolitan areas may be. Certainly the deregulation of the media has been a part of the story. When a very small number of large corporate owners are able to control so much of the radio market, there’s less room for competing voices to enter the dialogue.

But I also realize that radio markets outside major metropolitan areas were probably already quite limited before the deregulation and the demise of the original Fairness Doctrine. In most radio markets throughout the country, the diversity of population to support the incredible range of voices one can find in a market like Washington D.C. just isn’t there.

That, too, is troublesome, and in that context we should feel even more fortunate that there are now so many alternative media choices today to counteract the one-sided perspective that a monopolistic talk radio market is presenting to so much of the country. Sphere: Related Content

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