Stern warning on Free Speech

Howard Stern

Originally posted 2005-01-06 10:02:00. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

One of the more interesting developments in media, law and culture — don’t worry, I left out medicine and animal husbandry — is the radical change taking place in the broadcasting world, notably radio. Because of the traditional big three TV networks from last century, TV has always been a largely nationally-oriented medium besides local news and the occasional Uncle Floyd.

But radio is different. I used to be the sales manager for my college radio station and I saw the change from a local advertising market beginning in the early and mid-’80’s in central New Jersey. Local businesses lost the ability to make advertising decisions — because they were giving way or selling out to franchises, chains and other regional powers with professional media management staffs, budgets and the like. Still, even then radio content was entirely local, besides network news feeds that came over the phone lines on the half hour or so. That changed with the advent of Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh and radio syndication.

An article in The American Spectator (paywall) is a good summary of what the move by Howard Stern — whom I regard as simply unlistenable, for what it’s worth — means for the changing broadcasting industry. It’s notable because it’s honest and non-condescending about Stern’s undeniable appeal, and it is fascinating to observe what strange bedfellows the far-out, quasi-counter-culture Stern makes with Rush Limbaugh — who has jumped to Stern’s defense as whipping boy for factions favoring more content control over radio by the FCC.

We also call “content control” censorship, of course, and while I understand and am sympathetic to the sensibility, I hope perhaps changes coming in the Supreme Court will cause it to reconsider the ancient fib that “radio is different” in terms of government censorship because the “ether” is a “public trust.” This concept was more or less demolished academically by Ronald Coase and those following him in the 1960’s through today. Evidently the current popular argument for continued radio censorship is the free accessibility of radio to young people, because of its ubiquity.

The problem with this argument is that (a) ubiquity of speech is just not a reasonable answer to the First Amendment and (b) whom are we kidding? These kids today see and hear it all on cable TV, movies and on the Internet. If, unlike my kids, your kids have unsupervised access to the modern media culture, Howard Stern will be the least of your problems — even on the radio.

Do I really think the Supreme Court will recognize this? Well, it sure won’t be Congress. Maybe it’s on their short list for the 21st century… right under rent control.

Ron Coleman

I write this blog.