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Making talk radio 'fair and balanced'

The sky is falling! The sky is falling! Well, you'd think it was, if you've been listening to right-wing talk radio lately. Conservative talk show hosts are positively apoplectic over calls by two Democratic senators to bring back the Fairness Doctrine.

First up, Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow. While not calling for restoration of the Fairness Doctrine as such, Stabenow did assert, on my radio show: "We're going to have to have some accountability, something that requires that in a market with owners that have multiple stations that they've got to have balance... There has to be some community interest balance standard that says both sides have to be heard."

A few days later, Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin went even further. Referring to a column I'd published in The Washington Post lamenting the shutting down of Washington's only progressive talk radio station, Harkin volunteered: "I ripped it out, I took it into my office and said 'There you go, we've got to get the Fairness Doctrine back in law again.'"

He might as well have lobbed a nuclear bomb into conservative talk land. In typical hyperventilating fashion, Sean Hannity warned Sen. Stabenow: "But if you think you're going to grab this microphone away from me and the American people, you'd better be prepared, because we're going down to the last breath. And you're going to have to come into my radio studio and rip this microphone out of my mouth. How do you like that, Senator?"

Hey, slow down, Senor Hannity. Nobody's talking about ripping the microphone out of anybody's mouth. The Fairness Doctrine, cancelled by Ronald Reagan's FCC in 1987, simply required that owners of radio stations devote some time to discussion of controversial issues and do so in a manner that is "fair and balanced."

That is clearly not the case today, in the absence of the Fairness Doctrine. Talk radio is owned, controlled, locked up by the right wing -- with little or no opportunity for liberal voices. According to a study released by two think tanks, the Center for American Progress and Free Press, there are nine hours of conservative talk for every one hour of progressive talk.

Why? Station owners complain they can't get good ratings or make any money with progressive talk, but that's nonsense. In Minneapolis-St. Paul, independent owner Janet Robert has operated KTNF (950 AM) profitably for five years. In Madison, Wis., WXXM (99.1 FM), just scored its highest ratings ever. And KPOJ (620 AM) in Portland, Ore., soared with progressive talk from No. 23 in market ratings to No. 1. Owners of Chicago's WCPT (820 AM) experienced so much success with progressive talk, they converted three FM stations they owned to progressive talk.

Nationwide, progressive talkers Randi Rhodes, Ed Schultz, Thom Hartmann and Stephanie Miller have proven that, given a level playing field, they can more than hold their own in ratings -- and make money for their stations. The once-widely-held theory that liberals can't do talk radio has been totally discredited.

In fact, the only reason there's not more competition on American airwaves is that the handful of companies that own most radio stations do everything they can to block it. In many markets -- witness Philadelphia, Boston, Providence, Atlanta, Houston -- they collaborate in providing not one outlet for progressive talk. Now the blackout extends even to Washington, D.C., where Democrats outnumber Republicans 10 to one.

And that must change. Not necessarily by bringing back the Fairness Doctrine, but by requiring owners of broadcast licenses to serve the general public. We need government oversight by the FCC of radio station owners, just like we needed government oversight by the SEC over Wall Street banks. Today, we have neither.

Forget all the right-wing hysteria about liberals trying to "hush Rush." What the whole flap over the Fairness Doctrine boils down to is this: Companies are given a license to operate public airwaves -- free! -- in order to make a profit, yes, but also, according to the terms of their FCC license, "to operate in the public interest and to afford reasonable opportunity for the discussion of conflicting views of issues of public importance." Stations are not operating in the public interest when they offer only conservative talk.

Make room for progressive voices on the radio. That's what the American people want. How do you like that, Mr. Hannity?

-- Press hosts a nationally syndicated radio show and is author of "Train Wreck: The End of the Conservative Revolution (and Not a Moment Too Soon)."

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