On Fox News Sunday, Senator Diane Feinstein said she is considering whether the Fairness Doctrine should be revived because “there ought to be an opportunity to present the other side. And unfortunately, talk radio is overwhelmingly one way.” According to The Hill, the Fairness Doctrine is generating increased interest in Congress. So far, Exhibit A in this discussion is the new report from the Center for American Progress and Free Press, which attempts to document the imbalance in talk radio and comes out strongly in favor of government regulation to undo “the move toward lowest common denominator syndicated programming.” (p. 8) The report actually argues the Fairness Doctrine alone would be insufficient to remedy the imbalance and calls for more changes.
In part, the report bases its evidence on a non-randomly selected
sample of the roughly 1700 radio stations classified as news/talk. The analysis includes the 257 news/talk radio stations owned by the Big Five station
owners, Clear Channel, CBS, Citadel, Cumulus, and
The explanation for how the imbalance indicates a market failure is based mainly on a PEW study from last year. It found the national talk radio audience to be 43 percent conservative, 30 percent moderate, and 23 percent liberal. (PEW p. 38) These PEW numbers supposedly show there is unmet demand for progressive programming; however, the report does not disaggregate these national numbers and identify how many regions of the country actually have enough demand to sustain progressive programming but nevertheless have no supply.
With the programming so ideologically lopsided in the aggregate, perhaps it should be obvious that there is substantial unmet demand somewhere -- for example, the report says eight of the ten radio markets in Ohio have no progressive programming at all (p. 7) -- but the report is not convincing in explaining how the market is unresponsive to demand, either nationally or at the local level. The report speaks of syndicated conservative programs as having “artificial economies of scale” (p. 8), though the artificiality of the market is seemingly attributed to a lack of vigorous government regulation.
Setting aside why the market for talk radio is the way it is, I’ll focus on a sampling issue in this post. I'll save a coding quibble and some thoughts on an appendix of the report for a later post. (Appendix D provides some evidence that minority owners and owners of only a single radio station are more likely to broadcast progressive programs.)
Sampling “News/Talk” Stations - What Can We Learn From Houston?
The report’s concern is that talk radio is imbalanced, but it fails to explain how this imbalance actually deprives anyone of access to the various sides of any issue. Information from television, newspapers, magazines, and the internet are all alternative sources of information from progressive writers and speakers. Except when someone is driving, all of these alternative sources are viable substitutes for talk radio. Even while driving, important alternatives are not represented in the report. Satellite radio provides one example. Sirius channel 146 and XM channel 167 are both devoted to progressive talk. More surprising than the omission of satellite radio from the report is the omission of substantial progressive content from other broadcast stations.
Again, the authors chose to code content for stations
classified as news/talk (or more specifically, news, talk, urban talk, and
news/talk). Although the national data mentioned above are based on only the leading
five commercial owners, the report also includes a more in-depth analysis of
the top ten radio markets, an analysis not limited just to Big Five stations. Based on
this analysis of 65 news/talk stations in these ten markets, the report concludes
Source: Center for American Progress and Free Press, The Structural Imbalance of Political Talk Radio page 5 (2007).
So does Houston really have zero hours of progressive programming? Because the report focuses only on stations classified as news/talk,
Despite what the report claims,
In sum, relevant progressive programming is clearly omitted from the
national analysis, which includes only Big Five stations, but it is even omitted from the more comprehensive analysis of the top ten radio markets, a fact much less clear in the report.