Essay:Why the Fairness Doctrine was a good idea

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For an introduction to the Fairness Doctrine, see here

A quick tour of broadcast radio[edit]

Let's see what we're dealing with first. (If you don't understand terminology, it can be looked up in Wikipedia or a decent book on amateur radio.[1] Links will slowly be added to make this easier.)

Band and propagation[edit]

  • The AM band is 520kHz-1610kHz, with an extra 100kHz at the top in the Americas, with either 9 or 10kHz channel spacing. That's 119 channels with 10kHz spacing in the Americas, or ~120 with 9kHz everywhere else. AM is in the medium wave band, and is subject to some wildly variable propagation characteristics; during the day, AM can usually be counted on to be relatively local, but the signal bounces off the upper layers of the atmosphere and can travel further with greater power. At night, it's not uncommon for AM stations to drop power, as the ionosphere becomes much more reflective at MW frequencies at night, and geographical station separation becomes a real problem. After sunset, then, AM's carrying capacity drops rapidly.
  • The FM band is 87.5MHz-108MHz in most parts of the world. In practice, with 200kHz spacing, that works out to around 100 channels, though some countries use tighter spacing with two or four times that many channels, and many countries that use the wider spacing authorize various analog and digital subcarriers (most notably SCA and HD Radio). FM is in the middle of the VHF band, wedged in between TV and air traffic allocations, and is mostly a line-of-sight signal unaffected by atmospheric conditions or structure; therefore, FM radio bleeds out into space rather than reflecting back to earth like AM. This effective limitation of range means that FM does not have to drop power or shut down at night. Increased power does allow for greater overall coverage, but only as long as the receiver is within line of sight range; as a result, FM transmitter towers are generally built as high as possible to increase line of sight to receivers.
  • There are numerous shortwave broadcast bands between 3 and 30 MHz, mostly interspersed with amateur, military, and long-haul two-way communications. Most shortwave broadcasting is done by governmental agencies and public broadcasters, with a significant cohort of commercial and religious broadcasters. Most shortwave communication is done in narrow-band AM, with some single sideband (i.e. AM with no carrier) and a fair amount of digital, including narrow-band techniques favored by amateurs such as Morse Code, radioteletype, and PSK31 as well as audio broadcasts using Digital Radio Mondiale, an open digital audio stream format. Propagation characteristics vary widely over the shortwave bands depending on frequency, signal power, and time of day. International shortwave broadcasting usually uses a 5 kHz channel spacing, making for awkwardly low-quality sound reproduction; as a result, talk and news programming is far more significant than music.


Analog radio uses two rather different modulation schemes.

  • AM -- amplitude modulation -- varies the overall volume of a carrier wave with the frequency of sound coming in. It might help to understand it as simply shifting the frequency of a sound converted to an electrical signal (the baseband signal) up to the transmission frequency. The result is that a series of overlaid sound signals on the same carrier frequency sound pretty much like they would if you heard them in a room; while this is distinctly annoying when listening to broadcast radio, this is actually important for air traffic controllers so they can hear several airplanes at once. However, this also means that a source of RF noise (such as a lightning bolt or a Tesla coil) can wipe out any transmission on the frequency tuned to. AM radio is also tremendously wasteful in terms of power, since a lot of the transmitter power goes into the carrier wave rather than the sidebands, which are the part of the signal that actually carry information.
  • FM -- frequency modulation -- is somewhat more complicated. Rather than simply shifting the baseband signal, it actually reencodes the signal as a series of frequency shifts. This sort of signal is more robust than an AM signal, since a quality inherent in most FM receivers is something called a "capture effect" -- at any given moment, the receiver will only recognize the strongest signal in the area, making it harder to jam or interfere with an FM signal. The downsides are that an FM signal needs to be aggressively filtered to avoid falling over into adjacent channels, and therefore it's pretty much impossible to jam a broadcast-quality FM signal into the narrow channels usually used in the medium wave and shortwave bands.

There are other modulation schemes -- phase modulation, continuous wave (i.e. Morse Code), and digital schemes such as QAM and PSK/FSK -- but they're outside the scope of this document, as they are not used in analog broadcasting.

Why do we need to know this? The Fairness Doctrine was a speech code.[edit]

What this is really all about is the fact that the radio waves are a limited resource. While it would be nice to give everyone open access to the airwaves, there are limits to how much information any given slice of spectrum can carry. The FCC long held a doctrine that the right to run a radio station was granted on condition that it was operated as a public trust, and the Fairness Doctrine was created in that spirit -- that it was unfair to allow the holder of a limited resource to use that resource to crowd out competition. To see how that could happen, let's examine the case of pirate radio, US-based Christian broadcasting, and the Low Power FM movement. (It's all rather intertwined.)

There was a huge debate a few years ago over allowing low-power FM licenses. What had essentially been happening is that there were (and still are) numerous community radio stations in the United States that operated as pirate stations; there was quite a bit of pressure from such groups on the FCC to allow the legalization of such stations. Over fierce opposition from full power broadcasters (including, rather shamefully, NPR), Congress allowed a limited number of LPFM licenses to go on the air, provided that they stuck fairly closely to a local content mandate. Several religious organizations, however (most notably Calvary Chapel), made a massive LPFM push to distribute religious programming, particularly satellite programming, the latter of which was generally seen by many observers as an illegal spectrum grab. The situation has been almost as bad on shortwave radio, where US non-governmental transmitters often broadcast a mix of far-right and religious programming to the near exclusion of any other programming (and to a likely near-total lack of interest to overseas audiences).

Many people from multiple parts of the political spectrum have argued in favor of unfettered access to the airwaves. The technical issues above show why this would be a bad idea -- the existing abuses of the rules would become an unlistenable stew of interference, redundant religious broadcasting, and just general bad feeling. Arguing against the technical issues by saying that there are other venues for viewpoints (as has been done by many Fairness Doctrine opponents) ignores the fact that the radio and TV broadcast airwaves are pretty much the cheapest possible such medium (being free, unencrypted, and available to anyone who cares to listen), and possibly the only one available at all to people who can't afford cable TV, satellite TV or Internet access, but can swing enough money for a cheap TV or radio. Much like a "Take Only One" sign next to a tray of free samples at the market, one of our few free resources has to be regulated in such a way as to prevent denial of access to minority opinions.

On marketing and barriers to entry[edit]

The Right argues that there is no market for liberal opinions on the radio. This may in fact be true, but let's examine for a minute why that is a much harder proposition than can be proved merely with just ratings.

Allow me a free pass on Godwin for a moment; I swear this is legit. What made Hitler's leadership of Germany such a paragon of evil was how he played off of the German population's history of anti-Semitism and their frustration with the economy's crash and burn under the Weimar Republic. Like many such right-wing populist/nationalist movements throughout history, Hitler's Nazi movement represented a triumph of propaganda over rational politics. By casting aspersions on the German Left's patriotism and circulating stories of a phantom Jewish "stab in the back" during World War I (a situation that Joseph Goebbels discussed rather frankly during his war crimes trial), the Nazis effectively neutralized any meaningful dissent within Germany, and as repression of dissent grew, the insane march towards Lebensraum began. Similar scapegoating and appeal to prejudice marked the rise to power of the KKK in the post-Civil War American South; it goes on again today, as the Republican Party continues to employ marketing and propaganda experts to reframe the political conversation in the United States in terms of values and attempt to use liberal concepts such as tolerance to justify demanding a hands-off attitude towards conservative prejudices.

Rush Limbaugh and Microsoft[edit]

FUD -- fear, uncertainty, and doubt -- is the key to successful propaganda. It's how IBM built their business in their bad old days, and it's how Microsoft keeps Windows in the forefront of the computing community even though each successive release is more and more troubled and encumbered. Rush Limbaugh, the undisputed king of the conservative airwaves (sorry, O'Really) loves him some FUD -- he's a product of the great conservative marketing push over the course of the 1980s and has essentially made his reputation on playing to people's fears of anyone who isn't like them. Part of that is what is sometimes referred to as "changing the national conversation" -- i.e. recasting the language of politics itself in terms of conservative codewords and ideology. Like controlling the center in chess, this is a very powerful tool for a propagandist -- a dissenter must work around the vocabulary of the people calling the shots. George Orwell, though a little too enamored of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, knew this; it was why Big Brother (i.e. the oligarchs in charge of the Ingsoc party) were so keen on Newspeak. When language itself becomes part of the propaganda, it becomes rather difficult to express an opinion without stepping on a landmine.

Thus we come to the infamous phrase liberal media. The conservatives have been hammering on the "liberal media" for so long that many people simply assume that it's the case; the truth of the matter, as groups like FAIR and Media Matters for America point out, is that the media is largely corporate in nature, and goes where the ratings go. The success of Fox News shows where that lies -- rage and prejudice. Media outlets around the country have followed suit in what some observers refer to as "Compulsive Centrist Disorder" -- the need to show the appearance of balance even when one side is clearly lying or out of their minds. The biggest victims have been science and political reporting; in both cases, rather than take a stand for an editorial position, many media outlets have bent over backwards to accomodate all opinions on an equal footing, or even to openly criticize positions perceived as dominant. [2]

There's scarcity, and then there's scarcity[edit]

The above picture of the radio dial assumes a fairly well-populated spectrum. This will certainly be the case in a major metropolitan area, but for example, where I live on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, there's very little local AM radio at all -- just a rebroadcaster for a Boston NPR station and (during the day time) AM radio from the Boston market. In other parts of the US, the situation is rather more dire -- in many rural areas, AM radio only comes in from metro areas dozens or even hundreds of miles away, and FM radio stations are few and far between and very limited on programming. Mobile TV is unsafe, mobile shortwave is unreliable, podcasts require Internet access (unlike countries such as South Korea or Canada, Internet access is not always a given in the US), and satellite radio is a subscription service using proprietary codecs and hardware. This is the Walmart problem -- consumer choice is all well and good on paper, but what if it simply isn't there? In an area where news/talk radio coverage is limited to one or two stations, one of which is likely to be an NPR affiliate carrying mostly national news with very little local component, the free market can't operate because there isn't much of a market to begin with.

On top of all that, a broadcast license isn't the easiest thing in the world to get -- for anything but an LPFM license, FCC fees can run five figures and up, to say nothing of issues regarding antenna placement, construction permits, and the like. High-quality transmitters are readily available to the general public, but apart from pocket-sized flea-power transmitters meant for use in cars and on small properties, they do not transmit on frequencies authorized for radio or TV broadcast. Homebuilt broadcast band transmitters are easy enough to find in kit form or as plans,[3] but can be difficult to build and tune, and often lack sideband filters to prevent adjacent-channel interference (a good way to get in trouble with the FCC even if you're not stepping on anyone else's main frequency). While pirate radio operators definitely have a folk-hero cachet, the FCC fines for illegal operation can easily dwarf the total value of the radio station, and kit manufacturers have occasionally been raided for selling transmitters that can be used as surveillance devices.

What should a fairness doctrine do, exactly?[edit]

In all Fairness, the Doctrine was something of a sledgehammer -- it was abused on occasion, both by governmental officials trying to manipulate media content and by program directors who shunted unpopular programming to graveyard slots like Sunday mornings. So it's important to define what exactly we mean by fairness, and what we want to accomplish if, somehow, the Doctrine were reinstated.

First off, it's baseless to complain that a reinstated Fairness Doctrine would eliminate conservative talk radio. With luck, enforced viewpoint competition would force some of the wilder voices like Michael Savage off the air and cause more mainstream players like Limbaugh and O'Reilly to be more professional about their approach -- less self-aggrandisement, an end to "unguested confrontation" (i.e. wanky prejudice-driven monologues punctuated by sycophantic callers), and an end to bullying advocacy tactics. But there's simply no way to mandate this without creating unnecessary chilling effects on free speech; the point is to force broadcasters to allow multiple viewpoints to be presented and to interact without tokenism or FUD, thereby raising the level of discourse and eliminating the market for prejudice and stupidity. So blunt-force Fairness is out. It's more trouble than it's worth, and can rightly be called undemocratic.

What about cable TV and that news station?[edit]

Well, I'd certainly like to see that station neutered, but it wouldn't happen with the Fairness Doctrine, nor with any other sort of government interference.[4] Cable television is not affected by any FCC content restrictions; most cable stations are theoretically free to air any content they wish, including political propaganda, religious material, or pornography, and answer only to their advertisers. That's because cable TV is not a shared medium; it's a private network controlled by the cable company, and its bandwidth is limited only by the carrying capacity of the last-mile connection between the main office and the cable box. In addition, it is a strictly opt-in pay service, and most current cable systems include channel-blocking software for those viewers who wish not to see certain content.

A case could be made that satellite radio and TV should be subject to the Fairness Doctrine because they use the airwaves to transmit; this probably can't and definitely shouldn't happen for two reasons.

  • They are, like cable TV, opt-in pay services, carrying much the same content as cable.
  • Prior precedent is against it. In a common law society, that's a pretty big deal.

So that station and any imitators it might have are safe as long as they remain on pay media, print media, or the Internet. However, any content it or its talent shared with broadcast media would have to be subject to the Fairness Doctrine. Whether this would be considered a handicap is really up to the content provider; the troubles XM/CBS Radio employees Gregg "Opie" Hughes and Anthony Cumia have had with their broadcast/satellite content-sharing arrangement might be rather instructive in this case.

References and notes[edit]

  1. Technical data on broadcast modes and propagation characteristics can be found in the ARRL Handbook, which can be obtained from The American Radio Relay League, or the equivalent from your local (non-US) amateur radio association.
  2. Thus Barack Obama runs for the White House under a cloud of intense scrutiny, while John McCain often receives a free pass for such things as his ties with John Hagee; in turn, the anti-vaccination crowd gets considerable press even though the science of immunology is pretty well unanimously against them.
  3. Canakit, Jameco, Hobbytron and Ramsey are among the companies willing to provide such kits.
  4. Well, barring direct stonewalling from political figures they need access to in order to stay in business. But that would be something of a marketing decision, I should think, not a policy matter.