Thousands of Oregonians were outraged when Portland Progressive radio talk station KPOJ was shut down in November and the frequency switched to Fox Sports 620.
Station owner Clear Channel Communications of Texas, the nation’s largest radio conglomerate, said the decision to cut the progressive format was purely financial; Clear Channel is reportedly more than $16 billion in debt and KPOJ wasn’t “performing.” This didn’t convince dubious progressives – they point to strategies Clear Channel had already enacted to weaken KPOJ advertising, to similar broadcast transitions around the country and to the company’s conservative ownership, (including Bain Capital, co-founded by Mitt Romney.) In a town where two other stations already broadcast sports they believed KOPJ’s demise was entirely political.
In the end, the reason may not matter. What may be most important is what the switch demonstrates about who controls America’s airwaves.
The most beloved KPOJ figure to be silenced was Carl Wolfson, who had broadcast a morning talk show there for six years. More than 16,000 fans signed a petition of protest when the KPOJ rug was pulled, primarily out of loyalty to Wolfson.
Subsequently, more than 1,000 Wolfson backers funded a Kickstarter campaign that raised $55,153 to help activate a new two-hour live Wolfson show that began on January 21. The new venture, which now airs weekdays between 7am – 9am PST, is not conventional radio; it’s an Internet show, or podcast (available on any internet enabled device by clicking the microphone at www.carlwolfson.com)
That Wolfson was forced to create his own stage in a Blue town in a mostly-Blue state underscores a notable fact: only about 50 progressive talk radio stations broadcast in this country, while there are more than 900 conservative talk stations. In a land where Democrats won the last Presidential election, the disproportion is conspicuous.
Unlike totalitarian countries like North Korea and Iran, American airwaves are legally the property of the public. They are not even “owned” by station owners because the sound spectrum, the “points on the dial” is finite.
Because of this limited bandwidth the Federal Government, through the Federal Communications Commission (FCC,) acts on behalf of the public to manage the airwaves. The FCC assigns and leases, for a limited time (five years), portions of the spectrum to private companies (radio station “owners”).
In 2008’s The Public and Broadcasting, the FCC explicitly acknowledges its obligation to the public, the airwaves’ essential owners. The FCC also states that licensees have a duty to broadcast in the public interest: “In exchange for obtaining a valuable license to operate a broadcast station using the public airwaves, each radio… licensee is required by law to operate its station in the ‘public interest, convenience and necessity.’ This means that it must air programming that is responsive to the needs and problems of its local community.”
Progressives argue that by giving KPOJ Progressive programming the axe, Clear Channel disregarded the public interest.
Nonetheless, in switching from progressive talk, KPOJ is part of a trend. It joins Seattle’s formerly progressive station AM 1090, which was switched to sports programming by CBS Radio this month, as well as Boston’s WWZN 1510, which was also moved from progressive talk to sports (and religious) programming in September and Detroit’s WDTW AM 1310, a progressive talk station that was closed for good by owner Clear Channel in December.
Aileen Kaye of Turner, a longtime Wolfson fan who was dubbed “Morning Show Den Mother” by the man himself, says these moves were technically legal because of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The Act eliminated all caps on the number of radio stations one entity could own nationally, and also increased the number of stations an owner could control in a given market.
Meanwhile a previous change in FCC policy (the end of the Fairness Doctrine) released broadcasters from having to present differing points of view.
The result, Kaye argues, is that corporate owners like Clear Channel have been allowed to expand and dominate airwaves all over the country. Now that these conservative lessees determine what the public hears, she sees a silencing of progressive voices. “So the requirement for broadcasting to be in the public interest,” she says, “is just no longer enforced.”
The FCC position is that it is constrained from meddling with content, including political bias. It says, “… broadcasters – not the FCC or any other government agency – are responsible for selecting the material that they air. By operation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and because the Communications Act expressly prohibits the Commission from censoring broadcast matter, our role in overseeing program content is very limited.”
To show support for Wolfson’s new venture, Kaye and a group called the “Crazy About Carl Club” rose in the wee hours of January 21 to join together in a Listening Party to celebrate his first Internet broadcast.
Spirits in the room were high. Calls came to Carl from as far away as New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and topics ranged from F.D.R. to King Louis 16th of France to a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speech about Vietnam.
At one point, in response to a caller frustrated by KPOJ’s termination Wolfson said, “The Telecommunications Act needs to be tested.” “Club” members heartily agreed.
Kaye and her group say they’ve learned from KPOJ’s demise. They plan “to work with Oregon’s congressional delegation and Senator Bernie Sanders to revamp laws relating to the use of our public airwaves.”
THE TOP DOGS
1) Clear Channel 1,200 radio stations
2) Cumulus 525 radio stations
3) CBS 127 radio stations Clear Channel and Cumulus control about 50% of industry revenues.