Conservative Sen. Trent Lott (R-MS) raised a furor last week when he called out the right-wing radio hosts working to defeat comprehensive immigration reform. "Talk radio is running America," Lott said. "We have to deal with that problem." Indeed, despite the dramatic expansion of viewing and listening options for consumers today, traditional radio remains one of the most widely used media formats in America, reaching an estimated 50 million listeners each week on more than 1,700 stations across the nation. More importantly, talk radio is dominated almost exclusively by conservatives. The Center for American Progress and Free Press yesterday released the first-of-its-kind statistical analysis of the political makeup of talk radio in the United States. The results confirm the stunning lack of diversity in talk radio and raise serious questions about whether the companies licensed to broadcast over the public airwaves are serving the listening needs of all Americans.
- The conservative domination of political talk radio is massive and widespread. According to the new report, in the spring of 2007, 91 percent of the political talk radio programming on the stations owned by the top five commercial station owners was conservative, and only 9 percent was progressive. Ninety-two percent of these stations (236 stations out of 257) do not broadcast a single minute of progressive talk radio programming. In the top 10 radio markets in the country, 76 percent of the news/talk programming is conservative, while 24 percent is progressive. In four of those top 10 markets — Philadelphia, Atlanta, Dallas, Houston — the domination of conservative talk radio is between 96 and 100 percent.
- The ideological imbalance in talk radio has grown as media consolidation has increased. The increasing imbalance in talk radio has paralleled significant shifts in the media ownership landscape. Since the Telecommunications Act of 1996, there has been a dramatic decline (34 percent) in the number of radio station owners, meaning a sharp increase in media ownership concentration. This trend has occurred because Congress eliminated restrictions on the total ownership of radio stations by any one media entity. Now, in the largest markets with 45 or more commercial radio stations, one entity may own or control up to eight commercial radio stations. As a result, women and minorities "have largely been shut out of radio ownership in this country," owning just 6 and 7.7 percent respectively of the nation’s full-power radio stations.
- The goal in regulating the market should be more speech, not less. First, the report recommends that Congress promote ownership diversity by restoring the local and national caps on the ownership of commercial radio stations. For instance, no one entity should control more than 10 percent of the total commercial radio stations in a given market. Second, the report recommends that several steps be taken to ensure greater local accountability over radio licensing. Radio broadcast licensees should regularly show that they are operating on behalf of the public interest and provide public documentation showing how they are meeting these obligations. Finally, if commercial radio broadcasters are unwilling to abide by these regulatory standards or the FCC is unable to effectively regulate in the public interest, a spectrum use fee should be levied on owners to directly support local, regional, and national public broadcasting. (For far more detailed explanations of the policy proposals, read the full report.)