Fact Checking Rush

Several talk radio people have thrown out a factoid on the air about the “Fairness Doctrine” – that news/talk has grown from a few hundred stations (before Rush) to about 2,000 today – because the fairness doctrine went away.  

Before I get into this, I don’t want radio to go back to 1985 – but testifying to Congress if it comes to that with facts that can be disproven could be very harmful to the “cause”.

 The original quote:  Rush Limbaugh Transcript
“I think it was 1987, you know how many radio stations were doing talk, Senator Bingaman?  One hundred and twenty-five.  And you know what was on those stations?  I mean sometimes from midnight to six you’d get the wild wackos, the provocational political people, but most of the time it was the correct carrot cake recipe for the holidays, where the next traffic problem was going to be in town.  Then you’d have a little segment where if your dog was lost you could call the station, and do lost animal reports
All of this wonderful stuff that nobody wanted to listen to, Senator.  One hundred twenty-five talk stations.  Senator Bingaman, do you know how many talk radio stations there are in America today?  Try over 2,000 since the Fairness Doctrine was lifted, and on those 2,000 radio stations are countless points of view, from the extreme communist left to the wacko whatever it is way out on the fringe right.”
I’m pretty sure Hannity and Rusty Humphries have also repeated this… I think maybe even Bruce Dumont (Radio Museum of Broadcasting History in Chicago) – but they may just echoing Rush.   Talk radio people tend to listen to each other. 
I can’t juggle any numbers to support that statement  (the following are total numbers, not streaming).   I’m more skeptical of the “pre Rush” 125 number than the current number, but it all comes down to definitions.

I count 1,166 “pure” news/talk stations as of today.  To get anywhere near 2,000, you have to add in “All Sports”  (564) or NPR (653).   

It can’t be NPR – I’m thinking there had to be at least several hundred NPR stations back in the 1980s.    If they’re doing talk today, they were doing talk back then – they are running the same programs from 30 years ago.  Much of their increase in numbers is due to college and high school radio drying up and turning the licenses over to the state university systems or regional NPR networks.

Maybe there are 500 ESPN/Fox Sports Talk stations that used to be “full service” carrot cake / lost dog stations – but there isn’t much about syndicated Sports Talk that the fainess doctrine would apply to…    (Coach Smith sucks… and now for the other point of view Coach Smith is great!).   Most sports talk stations are at the bottom of the ratings pile – 24/7 syndicated sports talk is very cheap to put on the air – and isn’t a sign of the health of AM radio – quite the opposite.
“Full Service” stations is very “mushy”.   A lot of them call themselves “news/talk/sports”…. I have put 443 stations into that pile… but if you count “full serivce” as part of the “2000 talk stations today”, then there were probably 2,500 full serivce stations in 1985 “doing carrot cake recipies”, and they haven’t changed – unless you count putting on 1 or two syndicated programs in the evening. 

The full service stations aren’t doing anything different today….. local news, weather and traffic,  reading the obits, today in history, Paul Harvey, a swap shop program, playing some music to fill time, public service interviews, high school sports at night and on weekends, maybe some guy talking about sports in the evening, a religious program here or there, perhaps Jim Bohannon at 10 PM or overnight….  Before Coast to Coast, most stations turned off their transmitters around midnight.   Computer automation didn’t exist yet except for very large stations, radio programs were not generally available on satellite yet.   It’s technology that changed things, not the Fairness doctrine.  

Back in the 1970s and early 1980s, I listened to Larry King, Bruce Williams, Sally Jesse Raphael… were “full service” stations that carried those talk programs at night “News/Talk” back in 1985 even if they did carrot cake recipes during the day?

How much of the change in numbers and formats is due to the FCC phasing out omnidirectional 50kw clear channel AM night time stations (KDKA, WOWO, WABC, WBZ, etc…) starting in 1986 – and letting or requiring local AM to stay on at night?  and making it more viable to start a brand new AM station or add syndicated programs?   Remember that Rush didn’t start syndication until late in 1988.
“Community radio”  is 131 more “maybe they’re talk” stations… the prototype for that category is Pacifica radio like WBAI or WPFK – but they have been around since the 1930s and haven’t changed what they are doing one bit.
The “unknown format” pile has 1,192 in it.  From indirect information (directories, syndicated programming lists, etc….) the bulk of the unknown stations seem to be small minority owned stations playing gospel, jazz, blues, etc…., Spanish language and religious stations.   Some probably ARE small town “full service” stations who don’t have the skills or can’t justify the cost of creating a web site.  Many of them probably are running syndicated shows after dark when the station goes down to 23 watts – and can only be heard 3 blocks away.  Does that matter?
If you’re in the radio biz, does Rush’s statement match your perception of radio history?   How can I add up numbers to make that statement true? 

The Fairness Doctrine isn’t going to be approached by the Obama administration or the Democrats in Congress as an economic one or the viability of the radio business model (which is looking very weak at the moment) or the sanctity of the 1st amendment.  

The Democrats are about power and control, not money.  Once you have the  control, the money takes care of itself – a trillion dollars at a time.

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