The Obama Watch

Will Obama Seize the Radio Stations Next?

When he says he won't do something that usually means he will.

By 4.22.09

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When President Obama announced his new budget a few weeks ago involving record spending, tax increases, deficits and debt, he did so with soaring rhetoric about spending cuts (non-existent), tax cuts for 95% of workers (misleading), and cutting the deficit in half in 5 years (good luck). This misdirection rhetoric is now a common Obama pattern.

For example, when the Administration leaked out word over the weekend of a plan to convert TARP loans into common stock in the banks, it did so with rhetoric that this was a way to rescue banks without asking for any more taxpayer bailouts. That drew attention away from the fact that this was an effective nationalization, with new outright government ownership in banks.

Obama started his Administration repeating the mantra that he only cares about what works, not about ideology. That was meant to draw attention away from the fact that Obama is all about extremist ideology, not pragmatism. That is why he is so intent on sharply raising tax rates on savings and capital and top income earners. Nothing practical about that in promoting the economy. Just the opposite. Obama's proposed severe global warming regulation serves extremist environmental ideology, not practical economics. Misdirection rhetoric is another trick Obama learned from Saul Alinsky.

So when the Senate recently voted 87-11 in favor of an amendment prohibiting reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine, with obvious White House approval resulting in the support of all those Senate Democrats, I immediately started looking for the other shoe to drop. What is the real plan to shut down conservative talk radio and Christian broadcasts? Where is Obama hiding the peanut this time?

FCC Regulation
The standard playbook for revolutionaries is to seize all the television and radio stations first, and announce the rebels are the new government. The Left has already done this in America. Except for a couple of holdouts -- conservative talk radio and Christian broadcasts.

Obama has already taken over GM, firing and replacing its CEO and Board of Directors. Now he is angling to take over the banks by transforming TARP loans into common stock. Will he find some way to take over the radio stations next, or at least the remaining talk radio and Christian broadcasting stations?

The Senate immediately followed its approval of Sen. Jim DeMint's amendment prohibiting the Fairness Doctrine by approving an amendment from Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) which provided for the FCC to "encourage and promote diversity in communications media ownership and to ensure that broadcast station licenses are used in the public interest." This language points the way, but it is still a sideshow.

The main frontal attack is not going to come through Congress, where talk radio audiences and Christian grassroots can be mobilized to stop it. It is going to come through regulations issued by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which already has all the legal authority it needs.

The FCC is currently composed of two Democrat and two Republican commissioners. Obama has nominated a new Chairman, his long time pal Julius Genachowski, which would give Democrats a 3-2 majority once he is confirmed. WorldNetDaily reports

Genachowski…advocates creating new media ownership rules that promote a diversity of voices on the airwaves. In fact, Genachowski is credited with helping craft the Obama technology agenda, which states: "Encourage diversity in the ownership of broadcast media, promote the development of new media outlets for expression of diverse viewpoints, and clarify the public interest obligations of broadcasters who occupy the nation's spectrum.

Local Soviet Councils
One of those "public interest obligations" of broadcasters has always been "Broadcast Localism," which is the responsibility of stations to serve the needs and interests of their local communities, as specified in the original Communications Act of 1934. Obama has already said,

I fully endorse a call for new rules promoting greater coverage of local issues, and greater responsiveness of the broadcasters to the communities they operate in. I also believe that broadcasters' license renewal requests, the periodic review required to ensure that broadcasters are complying with their public interest obligations to local communities for using the public spectrum, should require greater FCC scrutiny and public input should occur more frequently.

Indeed, the FCC has already endorsed a regulatory requirement that each station "convene a permanent advisory board made up of officials and other leaders from the service area of its broadcast station." These boards would enable stations to "regularly meet with community leaders and individuals from all sectors of the community" for advice on how to serve the needs and interests of each station's community. The FCC concluded in a January, 2008 report, "We believe that these boards will promote both localism and diversity and, as such, should be an integral component of the Commission's localism efforts."

Right now, the plan openly discussed for these boards is innocuous, with each station to pick who is on them, and just to meet with them once in a while to discuss issues and ideas. The FCC has noted, in fact, that Fox stations already do a good job of this on their own. But the TARP loans didn't seem so insidious in the beginning either.

These local boards provide an entering wedge that the Obamans can use to exercise greater control over local radio stations. New FCC regulations can take away station control over the boards, and provide for local politicians to appoint the members, or even for some process of local election. Or board regs can open up membership to Obama cronies from ACORN or similar left-wing organizations and labor unions. Or maybe Muslim activist groups in the case of religious broadcasters.

FCC regs could then start granting new powers to these boards. Maybe they could have a power to veto broadcast of some or all syndicated national radio talk shows on their local station. Or maybe they could remove shows where they find comments that they deem "racist" or otherwise inappropriate for their local community. Ultimately, the Obama-run FCC could try to grant these boards some of the powers of the station's corporate Board of Directors. Maybe these advisory boards could have a say in or determine who the station hires and fires. Maybe these boards eventually become the new Board of Directors, as happened at GM.

The term "Soviet" as in "Union of Soviet Socialist Republics" referred to local councils "in the early political organization of the Russian Revolution in 1917," the dictionary tells us. Maybe these local "advisory" boards will serve a similar function in regard to radio stations.

The Constitutional Right to Listen
The federal courts have long recognized that the First Amendment protects the right of radio audiences to choose what they want to listen to, as well as the right of talk show hosts and callers to say what they want to say. In Rossignol v. Voorhaar, the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals held in 2003 that the First Amendment protects both a speaker's right to communicate information and ideas to a broad audience and the intended recipients' right to receive that information and those ideas.

Similarly, in U.S. West, Inc. v. F.C.C., the Tenth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals held in 1999 that the two components of effective speech are a speaker and an audience, and a restriction on either of these components is a restriction on speech. In de la O v. Housing Authority of City of El Paso, the Fifth Circuit added in 2005 that the right to receive information is as equally protected under the First Amendment as is the right to convey it.

In U.S. v. Playboy Entertainment Group, Inc., a pornography case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that under the First Amendment's free speech clause, the citizen is entitled to seek out or reject certain ideas or influences without government interference or control. Is there is now more constitutional protection for pornography than political speech?

This doctrine should constitutionally limit what the local advisory boards can do. If they start to veto particular nationally syndicated shows that local audiences want to hear, as reflected in ratings, then that should be unconstitutional on these grounds. Indeed, doubly so if it is because of the expression of conservative views, because that would be viewpoint discrimination.

Focusing on these audience rights reframes the debate from one between the local community versus corporate broadcasters and national radio personalities, to one between different segments of the local community, or maybe between local fringe activist groups, maybe some with national ties, and the majority audience of actual station listeners.

Forced Broadcasts
Another possible tack is for the local advisory boards to demand air time for liberal talk show hosts to offset conservative shows. Or the local Muslim activist group might demand that Christian stations broadcast Muslim sermons as well.

Forcing a station to broadcast content it does not want to support should be an unconstitutional violation of the free speech rights of the broadcaster. If a liberal talk show has miserable local ratings, then it should be seen also as not serving the local community.

Hang the Owners
Still another angle for the new Obama FCC would be to focus on regulation of station ownership. The FCC has also long had legal authority for such regulation as well.

The FCC could place flat out limits on how many stations across the country one corporation or individual could own. Clear Channel, the backbone of Rush Limbaugh's show, owns 145 stations nationwide. Citadel owns 23 stations, Cumulus 31, and Salem 28, and they broadcast mostly conservative talk radio. The government sponsors 800 liberal radio stations across the country through National Public Radio. But there is no threat from the Obama FCC to them.

The Center for American Progress, run by former Clinton Chief of Staff and now Obama pal John Podesta, has already publicly called for national station ownership limits. Since this is considered economic regulation, it would be very difficult to argue that this violates freedom of speech, unless it could be shown that the intent behind it was viewpoint discrimination against conservatives and Christians.

Just threatening such regulation could force station owners to drop some successful conservative talk shows and air some unsuccessful liberal talk shows. We could suffer the same result through this means as through the so-called Fairness Doctrine.

Another means of hanging the owners would be through making license renewal proceedings into circuses, complete with clowns from ACORN, leftist labor unions, and assorted fringe pressure groups performing their acts at public hearings. The Democrats have already talked about requiring license renewals every three years rather than every eight. This would sharply increase the threat of stations losing their licenses, and make them kowtow to FCC control more readily.

Fighting Back
Conservatives are not helpless in the face of these threats. The American Civil Rights Union (ACRU) has created a website, www.FreedomtoListen.org, entirely devoted to countering this liberal left attack on free speech. It is a resource for information on what the Left is plotting on the issue, FCC actions, legislative action, and conservative responses. It also sponsors a Freedom to Listen Pledge, which the ACRU asks every federal, state and local candidate to sign. The Pledge states, "In accordance with our constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech in the First Amendment: I will oppose any and all efforts to censor or in any way restrict the people's freedom to listen to the unfettered airing of political views of their choice on broadcast media or the Internet." Through this Pledge, our elected officials can be held directly accountable on this issue.

The ACRU also sponsors Save Radio Free America for talk radio show hosts, stations, and others. The ACRU monitors the Federal Register daily for notices of FCC actions, and provides immediate alerts to members. It also reports on legislative actions. You can follow it at www.SaveRadioFreeAmerica.org. Another organization that does good work on this issue is the Media Research Center, led by Brent Bozell. It provides timely information and analysis at www.mediaresearch.org.

Of course, if you are not happy about what is going on in Washington, it is not too early to start your own organizing for next year's elections. There seems to be a lot of energy out there hungering for something to do to counter the left-wing takeover of America.

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About the Author
Peter Ferrara is Director of Entitlement and Budget Policy at the Heartland Institute, General Counsel of the American Civil Rights Union, Senior Fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis, and Senior Policy Advisor on Entitlements and Budget Policy at the National Tax Limitation Foundation. He served in the White House Office of Policy Development under President Reagan, and as Associate Deputy Attorney General of the United States under President George H.W. Bush.