Wednesday, February 08, 2023

What Happened to Radio?

Right-Wing Takeover of Radio
Nicholas Johnson
The Gazette, February 8, 2023, p. A6
NOTE: For space constraints, text [in brackets] was removed by editors; text (in parentheses) was added by editors.

How did millions of Americans come to believe that the components of authoritarian dictatorships will better protect their “freedoms” than our democracy?

The answers fill a long list. I’ve selected one: radio.

[Radio? That’s right, radio.]

Before radio, political consensus emerged from conversations, meetings, newspapers, and the occasional political speech on the village square.

With radio, a station owner could speak to the hundreds or thousands within the station’s signal area.

The 1920s and 1930s increased public awareness of the manipulative power of advertising and political propaganda. [After TV, Harvard economist Ken Galbraith declared radio and television to be “the prime instruments for the manipulation of consumer demand.”]

Ironically, the 1920s Members of Congress were more aware of the potential dangers of radio than their successors have been.

As Texas Congressman Luther Johnson [(no relation to President Johnson)] put it to his colleagues in 1926, “American thought and politics will be at the mercy of those who operate these stations. . . [If] placed in the hands of a single selfish group then woe be to those who dare to differ with them.”

The Radio Act of 1927, Communications Act of 1934, and FCC regulations constrained this potential threat to democracy. The public owned the airwaves, not broadcasters. Broadcasters needed an FCC license to use a frequency – initially limited to six months.

The granting and renewal of licenses turned on whether the station’s programming served “the public interest.” Specific FCC requirements gave meaning to those words.

The Fairness Doctrine required stations seek out local “controversial issues of public importance” and provide, not “equal time,” but a range of views. If stations gave one political candidate free time it triggered a right in opponents to an “equal opportunity.” Anyone attacked had a right of reply.

Other regulations encouraged diversity of views. Limitations on the number of stations one licensee could operate in a single market – or throughout the country. Restrictions on common ownership of newspapers and stations, or concentration of station ownership within a state or region.

This lasted roughly 60 years.

[So, what happened?]

What happened (then) was that Rush Limbaugh and other right-wing radio talk show hosts, and station owners carrying their programs, saw the Fairness Doctrine and ownership restrictions as a barrier to their goal of a nationwide, constant flow of unchallenged right-wing programming.
(If there be doubt about Limbaugh's conservative credentials: "In an unusual departure from protocol, Rush Limbaugh was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Trump during the State of the Union address. [It is] the country’s highest civilian honor." NY Times, Feb. 4, 2020, Photo credit: Golfing buddies, Trump and Limbaugh, at Trump's Golf Club; White House, Joyce Boghosian)

They successfully persuaded enough FCC commissioners and Members of Congress of their position, (and) the Fairness Doctrine was repealed, along with most ownership restrictions. Soon Clear Channel owned 1,207 stations in 201 of 287 radio markets, and the top 15 right-wing conservative radio talk show personalities were putting out 45 hours of unanswered assertions every day.

Millions of Americans, whose occupations were consistent with all-day radio listening, were getting an overload of a conservative perspective on America in workshops and kitchens, factory floors and restaurants, tractor and semi-truck cabs.

[That’s what happened.]

As the more moderate radio star Paul Harvey would say, “And now you know the rest of the story.”

Nicholas Johnson served as a Federal Communications Commission commissioner, 1966-1973.

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January 6 Attack. Brian Duignan, “January 6 U.S Capitol Attack; Riot, Washington, D.C., U.S. [2021],” Britannica, Jan. 7, 2023 update (“Because its object was to prevent a legitimate president-elect from assuming office, the attack was widely regarded as an insurrection or attempted coup d’├ętat. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and other law-enforcement agencies also considered it an act of domestic terrorism. . . . [Trump’s] false accusations were indirectly endorsed by several Republican members of Congress who expressed uncertainty about the election’s outcome or who simply refused to publicly acknowledge Biden’s victory. Their calculated reticence helped to spread false doubts about the integrity of the election among rank-and-file Republicans.”)

Radio Act of 1927. Stuart N. Brotman, Communications Law and Practice, 1995, 2006, Law Journal Press,

Luther Johnson. “Luther Alexander Johnson,” Wikipedia, (“American thought and American politics will be largely at the mercy of those who operate these stations. [If] a single selfish group is permitted to ... dominate these broadcasting stations throughout the country, then woe be to those who dare to differ with them." [67 Cong. Rec. 5558 (1926).”)

See generally, Nicholas Johnson, “Breaking Through Power: The Media; Harnessing Progressive Reform to 21st Century Media,”, May 24, 2016, (“Lord Reith’s preference for public over private ownership was reflected in the House floor debate about the Act. As Congressman Luther Johnson warned his colleagues, ‘American thought and . . . politics will be . . . at the mercy of those who operate these stations. . . . [If] placed in the hands of . . . a single selfish group . . . then woe be to those who dare to differ with them.’”)
Quoted from, Nicholas Johnson, “Forty Years of Wandering in the Wasteland; The Vast Wasteland Revisited Essays,” note 31, Federal Communications Law Journal, May, 2003, 55 F.C.L.J. 521 (2003), [Full Congressman Johnson quote in footnote 31: “American thought and American politics will be largely at the mercy of those who operate these stations. For publicity is the most powerful weapon that can be wielded in a Republic, and when such a weapon is placed in the hands of one, or a single selfish group is permitted to either tacitly or otherwise acquire ownership and dominate these broadcasting stations throughout the country, then woe be to those who dare to differ with them. It will be impossible to compete with them in reaching the ears of the American people.”]

Fairness Doctrine. Matt Stefon, “fairness doctrine,” Britannica, Aug. 16, 2017, (“In 1949 the commission promulgated a report, In the Matter of Editorializing by Broadcast Licensees . . . to promote ‘a basic standard of fairness’ in broadcasting. Licensees had the duty to devote airtime to fair and balanced coverage of controversial issues that were of interest to their home communities. Individuals who were the subject of editorials or who perceived themselves to be the subject of unfair attacks in news programming were to be granted an opportunity to reply. Also, candidates for public office were entitled to equal airtime.”)

“FCC Fairness Doctrine,” Wikipedia, (“The demise of this FCC rule has been cited as a contributing factor in the rising level of party polarization in the United States.[5][6]”

In 1938, a former Yankee Network employee named Lawrence J. Flynn challenged the license of John Shepard III's WAAB in Boston, and also lodged a complaint about WNAC. . . . [I][n 1941, the commission made a ruling that came to be known as the Mayflower Decision which declared that radio stations, due to their public interest obligations, must remain neutral in matters of news and politics, and they were not allowed to give editorial support to any particular political position or candidate.

In 1949, the FCC's Editorializing Report[8] repealed the Mayflower doctrine, which had forbidden editorializing on the radio since 1941, and laid the foundation for the fairness doctrine . . ..

In 1969, the United States courts of appeals, in an opinion written by Warren Burger, directed the FCC to revoke Lamar Broadcasting's license for television station WLBT due to the station's segregationist politics and ongoing censorship of NBC network news coverage of the U.S. civil rights movement.[15]

Conservative talk radio
The 1987 repeal of the fairness doctrine enabled the rise of talk radio that has been described as "unfiltered" divisive and/or vicious: "In 1988, a savvy former ABC Radio executive named Ed McLaughlin signed Rush Limbaugh — then working at a little-known Sacramento station — to a nationwide syndication contract. McLaughlin offered Limbaugh to stations at an unbeatable price: free. All they had to do to carry his program was to set aside four minutes per hour for ads that McLaughlin's company sold to national sponsors. The stations got to sell the remaining commercial time to local advertisers." According to The Washington Post, "From his earliest days on the air, Limbaugh trafficked in conspiracy theories, divisiveness, even viciousness" (e.g., "feminazis").[44] Prior to 1987 people using much less controversial verbiage had been taken off the air as obvious violations of the fairness doctrine.[45]

. . .

On August 22, 2011, the FCC voted to remove the rule that implemented the fairness doctrine, along with more than 80 other rules and regulations, from the Federal Register following an executive order by President Obama directing a "government-wide review of regulations already on the books" to eliminate unnecessary regulations.[4]”)

Ownership. “The FCC’s Rules and Policies Regarding Media Ownership, Attribution, and Ownership Diversity October 27, 2004 – December 16, 2016,” Congressional Reference Service, (“Clear Channel leads in radio broadcast station ownership with 1,207 stations reaching 201 out of 287 markets in the United States.”)

Right-Wing Radio. Google search: right wing domination of talk radio stations

Paul Matzko, “Talk Radio Is Turning Millions of Americans Into Conservatives; The medium is at the heart of Trumpism,” New York Times, Oct. 9, 2020, (“By the early 2000s, it [the conservatism of talk radio] had embraced a version of conservatism that is less focused on free markets and small government and more focused on ethnonationalism and populism. It is, in short, the core of Trumpism — now and in the future, with or without a President Trump. . . . [J]ust the top 15 shows are putting out around 45 hours of content every day. . . . [T]he dedicated fan can listen to nothing but conservative talk radio all day, every day of the week, and never catch up. . . . Talk radio listeners make up a group at least three times as large as the N.R.A. and are just as committed to a particular vision of America. [Google search: “How many members in the NRA?” 5 million in Dec. 2018; = talk radio listeners  15 m]

Paul Matzko, “When Conservatives Forget the History of the Fairness Doctrine,” CATO Institute, Sept 2, 2021, (“But dedicated broadcasters like Limbaugh knew that imposing a rigorous Fairness Doctrine regime would demolish their core operating model. It is no accident that Limbaugh’s show did not receive national syndication until a few months after the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine.

That wariness about the effects of the Fairness Doctrine on conservative broadcasting extended to President Reagan. He might be better known for his screen presence, but Reagan was an old radio hand. Indeed, he delayed formally announcing his presidential candidacy for 1980 so that he could keep his daily radio show Viewpoint on the air on 286 stations nationwide as long as possible.

Their skepticism paid off. Repealing the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 enabled the rise of conservative‐dominated talk radio with vast political consequences. Without talk radio, it’s hard to imagine the success of Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” in 1994 or the impeachment of Bill Clinton. And the tens of millions of regular talk radio listeners created a coherent audience that could be targeted later by conservative media entrepreneurs like Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes. For good or for ill, the conservative movement would look dramatically different today if the Fairness Doctrine had not been repealed.

. . . talk radio had become a key pillar of conservative political success.”)

Al Tompkins, “How Rush Limbaugh’s rise after the gutting of the fairness doctrine led to today’s highly partisan media; Limbaugh’s success after President Reagan declawed the doctrine, gave rise to others and provided encouragement for Fox News’ 1996 launch,” Poynter, Feb. 17, 2021, (“Rush Limbaugh was more than a talk radio host. He was a key element in the development of the highly partisan journalism and other media that envelop us today.

Limbaugh’s talk radio program was not possible until the Federal Communications Commission relaxed the fairness doctrine.”)

Kevin M. Kruse and Julian Zelizer, “How policy decisions spawned today’s hyperpolarized media; The demise of the Fairness Doctrine played an underappreciated role in fomenting media tribalism,” The Washington Post, Jan. 17, 2019. (“In 1987, the FCC announced that it would no longer enforce the Fairness Doctrine. . . . Almost overnight, the media landscape was transformed. The driving force was talk radio. In 1960, there were only two all-talk radio stations in America; by 1995, there were 1,130.”)

Repeal of ownership limits.

Google search: right-wing conservatives pressed FCC to repeal ownership limits

Nikki Finke, “FCC Ownership Rules Blamed For Total Dominance By Right-Wing Talk Radio,” Deadline, June 21, 2007, (“The Center for American Progress and Free Press just released the first-of-its-kind statistical analysis of the political make-up of talk radio in the United States. It confirms that talk radio, one of the most widely used media formats in America, is dominated almost exclusively by conservatives. The new report entitled “The Structural Imbalance of Political Talk Radio” blames the FCC for the current imbalance, in particular . . . the relaxation of ownership rules. . . .

Americans listened on average to 19 hours of radio per week in 2006. Among radio formats, the combined news/talk format leads all others. Through more than 1,700 stations across the nation, it reached 50 million listeners each week.

Of the 257 news/talk stations owned by the top five commercial station owners this spring, 91% of the total weekday talk radio programming was conservative, and only 9% was progressive.”)

Eric Boehlert, “Former FCC chairman: Deregulation is a right-wing power grab; Reed Hundt says Monday's historic vote was ‘the culmination of the attack by the right on the media,’" Salon, May 31, 2003, (“In a historic session on the future of the U.S. news media, Republicans on the Federal Communications Commission voted Monday to ease long-standing rules so that more and more of the nation's newspapers and broadcast stations can be concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.

Underlying that agenda, Clinton-era FCC chairman Reed Hundt saw something more primal unfolding: an extraordinary conservative power grab that could shape the political landscape for generations.

For all the philosophical conflict over diversity in the media and the efficiency of the free market, Hunt told Salon, the vote is really about an alliance of interests between the political right and the corporate media. ‘Conservatives,’ he said, ‘hope ... that the major media will be their friends.’" . . .

The FCC has long had rules regulating media ownership, based on the assumption that the number of broadcast frequencies is limited. The regulations were designed to ensure that radio and television stations remained diverse, independent voices and could withstand predatory conglomerates. But on Monday the FCC dumped those rules.

. . .

At the time, Hundt was among the few to warn of the consequences. The new laws would allow "a few companies to buy all the radio licenses in the country," he said then. "I don't believe that's good for this industry or for this country."

His words proved prophetic. Since the law's passage, Clear Channel Communications, which in 1995 owned approximately 40 radio stations, has expanded to approximately 1,200 outlets, nearly 1,000 more than its closest competitor.

[Reed Hundt during interview:] “When Newt Gingrich was running the House of Representatives, effective in the fall of 1994, he called all the media owners together in a room down on Capitol Hill, and according to what people who were there told me, he told them he'd give them relaxed rules allowing media concentration in exchange for favorable coverage. Now I wasn't there, but that's what they said they understood he meant.”)

Jeffrey M. Berry and Sarah Sobieraj, “Understanding the Rise of Talk Radio,” Political Science and Politics, Cambridge University Press, Oct. 18, 2011, (“The number of radio stations airing political talk shows—predominantly conservative talk radio—has surged in the past few years. This massive change in the radio industry says something about the demand for such shows, but attributing the rise of talk radio to a corresponding rise in conservative popular opinion is misleading. We argue that this remarkable growth is better explained by the collision of two changes that have transformed the radio business: deregulation and the mainstreaming of digital music technologies. Regulatory changes have shifted much of radio production and control from local to mass production (managed by industry giants such as Clear Channel Communications) and created a context ripe for nationally syndicated hosts such as Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Mark Levin.”)

Rest of the story. “The Rest of the Story,” Wikimedia, (“The Rest of the Story was a Monday-through-Friday radio program originally hosted by Paul Harvey.[1] . . . The broadcasts always concluded with a variation on the tag line, ‘And now you know...the rest of the story.’")

And see, “Paul Harvey,” Wikipedia,

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