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The Future of 'Public' Radio
[January 08, 2003]

By S. M. Oliva

Senator Russ Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat, announced yesterday that he would sponsor legislation to limit the number of radio stations a single company could own. Feingold seeks to challenge the looming relaxation of ownership rules sought by Federal Communications Commission chairman Michael Powell. Under current rules, a company cannot own more than eight radio stations in major markets, cannot own a radio station and newspaper in the same market, and cannot broadcast to more than 35% of the country.

Feingold’s plan would limit the total number of stations that a company could own nationally, something that is not currently regulated. In his remarks to the Future of Music Coalition, a group that opposes private property rights in broadcasting, Feingold denounced the FCC’s deregulation push as an assault on the “public interest”:

"The last time I checked, radio airwaves continued to be owned by the public. We need to remind the [FCC] that radio is a public medium. It must serve the public good.”

If you accept Feingold’s theory—that the airwaves should be state property—than his call for additional regulation is a debatable issue. But even minimal rational scrutiny of Feingold’s statement betray the intellectual bankruptcy of the pro-regulation position. After all, what is the “public good,” and how do we know the present structure of the industry isn’t serving it? There’s no evidence of widespread disaffection with current radio programming. In many markets, consolidation of station ownership leads to a greater variety of programming. Major media companies like Clear Channel don’t make money by having eight stations with identical formats in a market; they profit by having each station cater to a specific audience. Without consolidation, many markets would lose stations, since individual stations would be far less profitable standing alone.

Senator Feingold needs to explain why “public ownership” of the airwaves is beneficial. As a rule, Americans don’t traditionally support the Communist concept of property rights. And for good reason—such a policy inevitably results in stagnation. The United States would never have expanded beyond the original 13 states if the frontier maintained “public property” status in perpetuity. Instead, 18th and 19th Century politicians recognized the proper role of government was to serve as a custodian of property, not an owner of it. This led to acts like the Northwest Ordinance and the Homestead Act, laws that allowed individuals to establish initial ownership of the land. The government defined objective rules to establish ownership, and then stepped out of the way.

Imagine how America would have developed if, instead of recognizing individual property rights, the early congresses created a centralized agency that would grant “licenses” to Western settlers. In exchange for receiving and periodically renewing these licenses, the licensees agree to operate the land in the “public interest,” as defined by the central authority. Under such a system, can one reasonably see the coast-to-coast republic that is modern America? Of course not. Centralized planning is a lousy means of exploring and developing new communities. The same is true of radio.

Indeed, radio technology was initially development through the trial-and-error of individual inventors, not government planners. Only after the technology became popular did the government step-in to assert “public” rights in the new medium. And it should be noted, the earliest advocate of federal regulation was not a leftist progressive, but a conservative Republican—Herbert Hoover. It was Hoover, as secretary of commerce, who in 1927 pushed for the creation of the FCC’s predecessor agency.

Then, as today, the government sought to regulate radio “in the public interest” without ever defining the term. The result, not surprisingly, is government by interest group. Whatever lobby has the ear of the FCC gets to decide the public interest, even if the real public—meaning consumers acting according to individual self-interest—disagrees. Consider the recent controversy over CBS’s airing of the “Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show.” The tacky program drew almost 20 million viewers, yet an FCC commissioner threatened a “public interest” action against CBS based on the complaint of less than 300 people. In the government’s mind, the complaints of a few outweigh the interests of the majority. Given the oft-stated commitment of leftists to populist rule, this seems a strange way to regulate communications.

Notice that Feingold can’t define what “diversity” is lacking in commercial radio today. He presents no evidence, because he’s not arguing from reason. He’s arguing from his own ideology—statism. There are few parts of American society Feingold would not nationalize if he could. Even speech itself, as evidenced by his prominent advocacy of campaign finance “reform.” Feingold is upset that there are other people who don’t share his egalitarian views of society, and the only way to silence them is to confiscate the means of communication itself. After all, if Feingold was really concerned with diversity of radio programming, he would start by demanding National Public Radio—a government-financed entity—open their schedule to a greater diversity of viewpoints.

The only useful thing about Feingold’s remarks is how they expose the need for greater deregulation. While the FCC is taking some useful baby steps in this regard, the ultimate answer is simpler and far more radical—total privatization of the airwaves. Broadcasting spectrum must be treated the same as any other private property; it should not be considered a privilege for those who best grovel to the FCC for licenses. The best way to protect the variety of radio programming is to subject it to market forces, not government policymaking.


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