The Structural Imbalance of Political Talk Radio
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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. Arbitron, the national radio ratings company, reports that more than 90 percent of Americans ages 12 or older listen to radio each week, “a higher penetration than television, magazines, newspapers, or the Internet.” Although listening hours have declined slightly in recent years, Americans listened on average to 19 hours of radio per week in 2006.
Among radio formats, the combined news/talk format (which includes news/talk/information and talk/personality) leads all others in terms of the total number of stations per format and trails only country music in terms of national audience share. Through more than 1,700 stations across the nation, the combined news/talk format is estimated to reach more than 50 million listeners each week.
As this report will document in detail, conservative talk radio undeniably dominates the format:
- Our analysis in the spring of 2007 of the 257 news/talk stations owned by the top five commercial station owners reveals that 91 percent of the total weekday talk radio programming is conservative, and 9 percent is progressive.
- Each weekday, 2,570 hours and 15 minutes of conservative talk are broadcast on these stations compared to 254 hours of progressive talk—10 times as much conservative talk as progressive talk.
- A separate analysis of all of the news/talk stations in the top 10 radio markets reveals that 76 percent of the programming in these markets is conservative and 24 percent is progressive, although programming is more balanced in markets such as New York and Chicago.
This dynamic is repeated over and over again no matter how the data is analyzed, whether one looks at the number of stations, number of hours, power of stations, or the number of programs. While progressive talk is making inroads on commercial stations, conservative talk continues to be pushed out over the airwaves in greater multiples of hours than progressive talk is broadcast.
These empirical findings may not be surprising given general impressions about the format, but they are stark and raise serious questions about whether the companies licensed to broadcast over the public airwaves are serving the listening needs of all Americans.
There are many potential explanations for why this gap exists. The two most frequently cited reasons are the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 and simple consumer demand. As this report will detail, neither of these reasons adequately explains why conservative talk radio dominates the airwaves.
Our conclusion is that the gap between conservative and progressive talk radio is the result of multiple structural problems in the U.S. regulatory system, particularly the complete breakdown of the public trustee concept of broadcast, the elimination of clear public interest requirements for broadcasting, and the relaxation of ownership rules including the requirement of local participation in management.
Ownership diversity is perhaps the single most important variable contributing to the structural imbalance based on the data. Quantitative analysis conducted by Free Press of all 10,506 licensed commercial radio stations reveals that stations owned by women, minorities, or local owners are statistically less likely to air conservative hosts or shows.
In contrast, stations controlled by group owners—those with stations in multiple markets or more than three stations in a single market—were statistically more likely to air conservative talk. Furthermore, markets that aired both conservative and progressive programming were statistically less concentrated than the markets that aired only one type of programming and were more likely to be the markets that had female- and minority-owned stations.
The disparities between conservative and progressive programming reflect the absence of localism in American radio markets. This shortfall results from the consolidation of ownership in radio stations and the corresponding dominance of syndicated programming operating in economies of scale that do not match the local needs of all communities.
This analysis suggests that any effort to encourage more responsive and balanced radio programming will first require steps to increase localism and diversify radio station ownership to better meet local and community needs. We suggest three ways to accomplish this:
- Restore local and national caps on the ownership of commercial radio stations.
- Ensure greater local accountability over radio licensing.
- Require commercial owners who fail to abide by enforceable public interest obligations to pay a fee to support public broadcasting.
In the pages that follow, we believe our analysis of the talk radio marketplace merits serious consideration of the remedies we then present.
- Read the full report (PDF)
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