Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Commons on the Airwaves

Posted by Caitlin Endyke

Born 4 years after the Fairness Doctrine was revoked in the courts, I can't tell you that I remember a time when listening to the radio was an opportunity to catch up on community issues and open productive public discourse.  But I was intrigued by this piece, recently posted on onthecommons.org, that provides an excellent history on just how the American airwaves went from platforms for addressing community issues to the sports-talk-radio complex it has become today- filled with little more than Top 40 and hate-based political pundits (and the occasional This American Life episode).  I'm always most interested in ways that different technologies can both promote and hinder commons-based efforts, and this example is a bit of both.  Originally ruled as a resource that needed to be owned and operated for public benefit, the radio was perhaps the commons ideal- a cheap-to-produce broadcast system that was legally bound to offer an open dialogue and address community needs.  Yet over time, and with the changes in certain governing laws, radio has become a place (more on some stations than on others, for sure) for people like Rush Limbaugh to prattle on unstopped (and uncensored at least in the content of his speech, though perhaps not in the actual words he's allowed to use). 

As the authors note, "Fifteen years [after the Fairness Doctrine was revoked] talk radio has changed the nature of political discourse. Some persuasively argue it has changed our very culture. Media scholar Henry Giroux describes a “culture of cruelty” increasingly marked by racism, hostility and disdain for others, coupled with a simmering threat toward any political figure who comes into the crosshairs of what many now call hate radio".

How do we curb this trend? Can we go back?  In an era where the numbers of regular radio listeners  is continuing to dwindle, do we need to?  And if we don't, what are some other technologies that would allow us to establish a similar commons-based broadcast approach? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

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