Radio: It's about local, dammit

What's really wrong with talk radio isn't the imbalance between right and left - it's local vs. national, live vs. syndicated
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By Johnny Angel Wendell

arts@sfbg.com

As the 2010 midterm elections approach, so rises the heat level in one of the American news media's most vitriolic battlegrounds: AM (and increasingly FM) news/talk radio. Dominated almost entirely by the American right in all its permutations, the genre is part of what Hillary Clinton once deemed a "vast right-wing conspiracy." And while she may have overstated the case somewhat, talk radio is the angry white male's jungle drum. As the broadcast point for the economic and social theorizing emanating from billionaire-funded think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute, as well as repeating anti-government (when the government is not being run by Republicans) doggerel whose roots run all the way back to Father Coughlin's screeds in the 1930s, it's as effective a tool for mounting outrage (which is never aimed at corporate America, a telling sign, populism-wise).

Because of this obvious one-sidedness masquerading as news, many media critics on the left have demanded the reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine — a law enacted in 1949 that required the holders of broadcast licenses to present issues of public importance in a way that a government commission deemed fair and equal, so both sides of an issue got equal time. The doctrine remained the standard by which talk radio operated until it was repealed in the late 1980s. Shortly after that, Rush Limbaugh began his ascent to the summit of talk radio, becoming its most popular voice. If the Fairness Doctrine was still in place, however, that might never have happened.

President Obama has said that he has no interest in restoring the doctrine, claiming it's a distraction. Despite the fact that reinstating it would personally benefit yours truly as a left-leaning talk show host, I'm also opposed to it — it does not solve what truly ails talk radio today.

What's really wrong with talk isn't the imbalance between right and left — it's local vs. national, live vs. syndicated. Tune in to nearly 80 percent of talk outside of morning and afternoon drive time, and it's one national show after another: Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Dr. Laura. Their politics are irrelevant — they're broadcasting on local frequencies and not discussing local events.

Talk radio does not need partisan balance. At this point, half the country gets its news from the Internet, where thousands of Web sites provide every conceivable point of view. What talk does need — and badly — is a requirement that stations devote at least half their time to local issues. Most of the day or part of the evening should be devoted to what actually affects the audience — schools, traffic, cops, corruption, our kids, our money, what we see and hear right in front of us.

Radio chains might scream bloody murder at this because syndication is cheaper. But the two most popular AM stations in the state — KFI AM640 in Los Angeles and KGO 810 in San Francisco — are locally-based stations. KGO has no syndicated programming at all Monday through Friday, and consistently has been the top-rated station in the city.

A Fairness Doctrine would be seen (rightfully so) as a way to shut up the right. But a 50/50 Doctrine would not — and given that the polarity of opinion on local issues is less (because it's real and present), the blatant disregard for fact would evaporate quickly. This is worth lobbying for — if anything meant "bringing it all back home," local talk would be the optimal place to begin. *

Johnny Angel Wendell is a talk show host at KTLK AM 1150 in Los Angeles and has been on Green 960 and KIFR 106.8 in SF.