The Personal Is Political: The Political Economy of Noncommercial Radio Broadcasting in the United States

By McChesney, Robert W. | Monthly Review, March 2015 | Go to article overview

The Personal Is Political: The Political Economy of Noncommercial Radio Broadcasting in the United States


McChesney, Robert W., Monthly Review


In this essay, I look at the problems facing progressives and those on the political left in the United States in participating in political analysis and debate in mainstream journalism and the news media. I focus on radio broadcasting, as this is where much of political discussion takes place in the United States. Radio broadcasting is the least expensive of the media for production and reception, is ubiquitous, has adapted itself to the Internet, and is uniquely suited for locally based programming. I leave aside the matter of the Internet, as this is an issue I address in detail elsewhere; while the digital revolution is of indubitable importance, it does not alter my basic argument appreciably.11 also stay away from television, cable TV news networks in particular. While those channels are important, they too do not affect my core points. I look specifically at my own experience hosting a weekly public affairs program on an NPR (National Public Radio)-afñliated radio station in Illinois from 2002-2012. This was, to my knowledge, the only NPR series hosted by a socialist in the network's history. But before I draw from my personal experiences, some context is necessary.

Prolegomenon

Considerable scholarship has examined the range of legitimate debate in the U.S. news media. In short, the range tends to be bounded by the limit of debate among political and economic elites; when they agree on a topic, any view that challenges this is pretty much off-limits in the news media and various discussion programs.2 As Jeff Cohen, the founder of Fairness ist Accuracy In Reporting, puts it, the range of debate tends to extend "all the way from GE to GM."5 When nonmainstream views do get attention, they tend to be misrepresented, ridiculed, or trivialized. Occasionally, during periods of social upheaval and powerful social movements, dissident views can get a hearing, even a respectful one, but when the momentum recedes, the coverage declines sharply qualitatively and quantitatively.

For those firmly ensconced inside the mainstream, this tends to be no more a concern than drowning is to a fish; it barely warrants consideration as an issue. For those outside the mainstream, addressing the too-narrow range of legitimate discourse has been a constant problem, and an issue of almost singular importance. For much of U.S. history, the emphasis was upon creating independent media that could provide a forum for dissident views. By the middle of the twentieth century, the emphasis became gaining access to mainstream media and elite media discourse, as they dominated the political environment, and independent media such as they existed were increasingly marginal and ineffectual.

For modern societies as a whole, elite-driven media debate may not be an especially enormous problem in political democracies with high voter participation, relative economic equality, vibrant political cultures, and economic growth and stability. As none of those criteria apply to the contemporary United States-and it is arguable how much the last criterion has applied since the 1980s-the nature of media and media systems is a very big deal.

To be precise, the ideological barriers are stronger in journalism and explicit public affairs coverage than in the balance of the media culture. Commercial entertainment allows a bit more wiggle room for dissident and left-wing ideas, though that point should not be exaggerated. It is striking, too, that celebrities from the entertainment world can get an audience in mainstream media to discuss ideas outside its parameters in a manner that scholars or activists could only dream about. But, again, that point should not be exaggerated. It is only "open" in comparison to the lockdown in place for the range of debate in the news media.

Much of the explanation for the constricted range of debate in mainstream journalism points to the commercial basis of the industry: private ownership supported by commercial advertising as the revenue base. …

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