RANDALL BLOOMQUIST wants to know why the government (i.e., taxpayers) should fund radio stations (“Real Things Considered,” The District Line, 3/17). Because the airwaves are public property, for one thing. Leases for most radio and television frequencies have been auctioned off to large corporations; the commercial stations are tenants who must periodically renew their licenses. Regulations governing corporate ownership were relaxed under Reagan; in the ’60s, AT&T was prohibited by the FCC from buying ABC, but General Electric was allowed to purchase NBC about 10 years ago. Now about two dozen big corporations own 90 percent of the commercial media. A few frequencies have been set aside for nonprofit, noncommercial use. Because of “free enterprise,” the commercial stations allow a very narrow range of content, whether music, news, or talk. Otherwise, owners and advertisers balk, either because they fear loss of ratings or because the news or talk conflicts directly with their financial interests.
That’s why WGMS, as good as it is, plays those light classics like Ravel’s Bolero and the Bach/Beethoven/Brahms standards over and over, yet one rarely hears, say, Monteverdi or Bartók. That’s why Michael Jackson and not Ornette Coleman is a major musical genius of our time. That’s why one never hears Ralph Nader, Noam Chomsky, or bell hooks on a commercial station. The leaders and outstanding intellectuals of the left are unknown to most Americans, while George Will, William F. Buckley, Rush Limbaugh, and other dinosaurs of the right never lack air time. That Bloomquist can dismiss WPFW’s “way-left news, views, and kookiness” proves how constricted the range of public debate has become.
Do we ever hear any substantial scrutiny of defense spending on an NBC station? Hell, no. General Electric is a major military contractor. Why the Canadian-style single-payer health care reform plan with 90 sponsors in the House seldom reported or discussed on TV or radio? Because insurance companies advertise.
Anyone who doubts that public radio is special should tune in to WPFW at 9 a.m. and listen to A Hundred Days of Congress, with Julianne Malveaux and her evil leftist crew dissecting Newt’s Contract With America. Are they biased? Of course, but unlike Limbaugh, they interview their opposition, and the debate is intelligent and gripping. Hear a few broadcasts and you’ll know what you’ve been missing on Nightline, why calling the mainstream media “liberal” is a joke, and why the right has especially targeted Pacifica stations.
Bloomquist thinks anyone who wants good radio (and, I assume, television) should pay for it. We did pay for it. I am reminded how great the price is every time I turn on my radio and hear Rush, easy listening, a vile ad for Nike or McDonald’s, or some DJ calling a three-minute piece of musical acne from 1962 a “classic.” If Americans revered their airwaves as a natural resource, as do the people and governments of Canada and Great Britain, we might equate privatization of public TV and radio stations with dividing up and leasing the Grand Canyon to Dow, Dupont, and Union Carbide.