The plunder of our airwaves

Last week, in discussing the wonderful world of corporate culture that gave us Enron, I mentioned, in passing, that broadcasting has been so deregulated that not only does the same company (Infinity Broadcasting) own two of our major AM stations, WWJ (950) and WXYT (1270), they both have the same general manager, Rich Homberg.

That wasn‘t meant as an attack on Homberg, a decent and thoughtful man who afterward wrote: “Jackson, once again, you are way off base ... As for radio, it’s never been better ... take a look at the numbers. America loves great, live, local radio.”

Well, he’s certainly right about America’s passion for radio, a far more influential medium than most realize. Homberg, by the way, is the guy who shrewdly lured the Red Wings and Tigers away from his mossbacked rival, WJR-AM. To me, that was a smart and savvy business coup.

You can even argue that there isn’t anything wrong in having the same company own two AM stations with different formats in the same market.

However, what lots of people are missing, forgetting, or never knew is that broadcasting isn’t like any other business.

By definition, broadcasting is a public trust. Infinity does own WXYT, WWJ and 185 other stations across the country. But what many of us don’t realize is that they don’t own 950 AM or 1270 AM.

They only are allowed to use those spaces on the dial. In fact, no private firm really owns any part of the airwaves at all. They are only licensed to use whatever particular frequency our government assigns them. Ever since radio got going, the airwaves have been public property, just as much as the air itself, or Yellowstone National Park.

Ironically, back when broadcasting started, the owners themselves begged the government to regulate them. The free market had led to a kind of anarchy, with rival warlords drowning each other’s signals out. So the federal government, then run entirely by business-oriented Republicans, stepped in.

Herbert Hoover, no raging socialist, put it best. Use of the airwaves, he told radio broadcasters, “must be for a public benefit. The use of a radio channel is justified only if there is a public benefit.” Broadcasters were “public trustees” who were allowed to make money, sure, but “the station itself must be operated as if owned by the public.”

But what about freedom of speech? If I start a newspaper, I can make it a Trotskyite or a monarchist sheet if I want to. That’s a right guaranteed by the First Amendment.

Why can’t I go out and start a radio station with similar ease? Simple. There aren’t an infinite number of frequencies and spaces on the spectrum. Theoretically, everybody could publish his or her own newsletter. Not so with over-the-airwaves transmissions.

So the idea was to make sure all views were heard. That philosophy, never perfect, was later extended to television. And accordingly, those lucky — or well-connected — enough to win licenses were expected, among other things, to provide listeners/viewers with news, and to do some purely public-service programming.

There was something called the “fairness doctrine” which required stations to air all sides of public issues. Was this always done perfectly? Certainly not. But it was a goal, and if you blatantly flaunted it, your license could be, and sometimes was, taken away.

That all changed, however, when Ronald Reagan became president and vowed to “privatize” America, including broadcasting.

Newton Minow, appointed by John F. Kennedy to head the Federal Communications Commission, the body which regulates television and radio, is remembered for worrying in 1961 that TV was “a vast wasteland.”

Mark Fowler, appointed to the same job in 1981, thought the idea of a vast wasteland was just peachy. “Television is just another appliance. It’s a toaster with pictures,” he said. He thought that treating broadcasters as trustees for the public was silly. It was time to treat the airwaves strictly “as business.”

That was the end of the fairness doctrines, for both radio and TV. Ditto to requirements that stations do news or public-service programming. Guidelines banning the broadcast of false, misleading and deceptive commercials were also trashed. All that mattered were ratings. Which meant when it came to news, for those stations still doing it, the faster and flashier the better.

Infinity does operate the only all-news station in the metro area, WWJ-AM. And its quality is far higher than it could be.

But it is mainly a headline service. There is virtually no complex exploration of issues, and the newscast is studded with commercials, some for products of a dubious nature. And, most appalling, some of the on-air personnel risk their credibility by doing commercials for a diet drink called Body Solutions, which is currently the subject of at least one class-action lawsuit.

Local television news is far worse, here as everywhere else in the nation. The universal philosophy is if it bleeds, it leads, and if it takes time to explain, forget it. What that does is foster cynicism.

In a world where our leaders can count on no more than 10-second sound bites, unless they want to talk about their sex lives, there should be small surprise when voters conclude that all politicians are the same.

Something could be done about that, if the broadcast media were required to do more to serve the public. All it would take is an order from the current FCC commissioner, Michael Powell, son of Secretary of State Colin. (No nepotism here!)

That’s not likely, unless the public gets aroused. It should; there is no more pervasive force and powerful force in modern life than the broadcast media.

Yet you’ll stare at even the best talk shows for a very long time before you hear one word of discussion as to who they should serve.

Wonder why.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]