Paul Scott -- Right-wing ideology has taken over AM talk radio
I was listening to the Tracy McCray Show on KROC 1340 AM on the Friday after the election, while making beds and folding clothes. I tend to be a public radio guy, but there’s something about local AM talk radio that helps you feel more connected to your town, so I tune in when I can.
Like most people, I was feeling kind of amazed on that morning about the victory of Barack Obama, but McCray and her co-hosts, Tom Ostrom and Andy Brownell, were seeing it differently. In their somewhat blase view of the event, though I have no quotes to offer as proof, so you will have to take my word for it — it is hard to take notes while chasing an 18-month-old — the Obama election had only come about because the economy had gone into the toilet.
The trio talks politics on Tuesdays and Fridays, and it is as close as we come in Rochester to a local political opinion show. Ostrom’s politics reside to the right of center, and he usually comes armed for each show with some anecdote from the news that bolsters his view of the world. Ostrom usually has his say, then Brownell and McCray spar with him gently, correct the record or draw out and expand on what Ostrom says.
The opinions expressed seem to run the full spectrum allowed in Rochester radio — everything and anything as long as it ranges from center-right to far-right. All three hosts are good-natured, Midwestern, not at all strident, and you get the sense that their rapport stands in their minds as proof that they do not in fact work on a right-wing radio show.
Before wrapping up on this morning, the trio homed in on the unfairness of an issue near and dear to their hearts: The talk in left-wing circles of resuming a policy known as the Fairness Doctrine. Once upon a time, the law of the land recognized the airwaves were so fundamental to our shared civic purpose — and so powerful in their potential for misuse — that basic fairness dictated they could not become dominated by one political viewpoint. An FCC policy known as the Fairness Doctrine required all stations to counter the airing of controversial political positions with opposing views. It seems quaint today.
The policy was struck down in 1987. Rush Limbaugh started broadcasting a year later and you can pinpoint the date as the start of the takeover of AM radio by high-drama conservatism. Revocation of this policy helped create the pugilistic, ideological conservatism that ascended to such great heights over the last two decades, leading us into two unfinished wars, a modern health care debacle, more moral controversies-of-the-moment than can be counted and which has now been shown the door.
After the Tracy McCray Show, KROC airs the Dave Ramsey Show, a syndicated call in show about debt. In the weeks prior to the election Ramsey casually made the assertion that the stock market was plunging because Wall Street was terrified of Obama raising taxes. After Ramsey, KROC offers us Bill O’Reilly. After O’Reilly it offers us Joe Soucheray, a St. Paul columnist who apparently believes he understands climate science better than the world’s leading climate scientists. After Soucheray we hear from Sean Hannity.
I don’t believe it would make any sense to try to legislate equal time for differing opinions on the airwaves. But I do wonder if we realize the extent to which radio consolidation has allowed politics to become imposed from above at the level of a small town. The majority of radio stations in Rochester, including KROC, are owned by the same company, Cumulus Media of Atlanta. Last month it laid off Steve Skogen, a veteran local broadcaster with 25 years of experience.
Cumulus is conservative — it orchestrated two pro-war rallies and one Dixie Chicks CD-burning party following their anti-Bush remarks, according to the Center for Media and Democracy. Cumulus banned the playing of the Dixie Chicks in 2003, and I can’t recall hearing the Dixie Chicks on local country radio since. I will never forget hearing a pair of local country music DJs put down the Grammys on the morning after the Dixie Chicks were awarded the Grammy for best album in 2007. When was the last time you heard a DJ put down the Grammys?
In the recent election, the country, our county and this city specifically cast aside the politics of right-wing radio in a hope for something different.
The days of equal time in radio may be gone, but it would seem to be in the best interest of local radio to try to reflect the changing views of its listeners in their programming.
Paul Scott is a Rochester-based freelance writer. His column appears monthly.