Sunday, October 19, 2008

A Dark Day for Talk Radio?

There was an incident in Pittsburgh last week that was either a clever ratings stunt, or (alternately) a serious blow against talk radio--and a sign of things to come under an Obama-controlled FCC.

During Wednesday's edition of the "Kevin Miller Show" on KDKA-AM, the program's executive producer, P.J. Kumanchik, read a statement from CBS management, addressing accusations that the host is biased against Barack Obama. As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette described the episode:

Citing a number of e-mails and phone calls from listeners criticizing Miller, Kumanchik offered Democratic presidential candidate Obama a three-hour air shift, usurping Miller's air time.

"We want to apologize to listeners who have found your show offensive," Kumanchik told Miller on the air. Kumanchik also said the complaints included the use of unapproved audio clips, including the theme from the TV series "The Jeffersons," and unobjective guests.

So far, there's no indication the Obama campaign plans to accept KDKA's "offer." But Miller is among the hosts who've interviewed writer Jerome Corsi on their programs. Mr. Corsi, author of "The Obama Nation," is hardly a favorite of the Democratic presidential nominee.

Obama's campaign (and his supporters) have already tried to bully stations who interview journalists who are less-than-friendly to their candidate. When Stanley Kurtz appeared on WGN-AM in Chicago, the station and its evening host, Milt Rosenberg, were subjected to scores of intimidating phone calls and e-mails, with the support of the campaign. To its credit, WGN did not cave.

KDKA may be another story. We say "may" because the event has all the makings of a ratings ploy. The first commercial radio station in America, KDKA has long dominated the Pittsburgh market. But in recent years, KDKA has been locked in a bruising ratings battle with WPGB, the Clear Channel-owned outlet that is home to the popular "Quinn and Rose" morning show, and serves as the local affiliate for Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.

Mr. Miller, the KDKA host who has supposedly incurred the wrath of CBS, has the unenviable task of competing against Rush in the noon-3 p.m. time slot. What better way to attract attention for your show--in the middle of a presidential campaign--than to be accused of "bias" and let a candidate host the program.

Besides, the "executive producer" of a local radio isn't exactly a broadcast executive. At most stations, they're a combination of broadcast engineer and call screener. If KDKA was truly concerned about Miller and his views, the statement would have been read by someone higher up the chain, say the program director, station manager, or an executive from CBS corporate headquarters in New York.

Still, we can't discount the possibility that CBS is attempting to muzzle one of its local hosts. Broadcasting companies are facing tough economic times--and the prospect of expanded Democratic majorities in both Houses of Congress. That makes a revived Fairness Doctrine a real possibility; by offering airtime to Obama before election day, CBS may be trying to head off "problems" that could complicate license renewal for the 140 stations in its portfolio.

Funny, but we think there should be more pressing concerns, including the First Amendment. But in Pittsburgh, free speech may be taking a back seat to the bottom line. If that "statement" was a legitimate depiction of CBS's corporate views, then last Wednesday marked a sad chapter in the history of talk radio.

What does it mean for the future of the medium? At this point, we can't say. Stay tuned.

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