Imus is a symptom of centralized media

by Wally Bowen, Asheville Citizen-Times

Lost in the debate over Don Imus is any discussion of U.S. media policy, which created and sustains a system that richly rewards “shock jock” programming.

Radio and TV broadcasters have been given more than $500 billion in electromagnetic spectrum — the so-called public airwaves — at no charge. In return for free licenses, broadcasters are required to “serve the public interest, convenience and necessity,” according to the 1934 Communications Act.

FCC’s role

Over the last 25 years, the FCC has steadily weakened the “public interest” obligations of broadcast licensees. and simultaneously allowed fewer and fewer companies to control the lion’s share of licenses. This is like the Division of Motor Vehicles removing speed and vehicle-size limits on our highways, while allowing a handful of trucking companies to own most of the vehicle licenses. It’s only a matter of time until a spectacular accident occurs. Don Imus was one such “accident.”

Created by federal policy, this centralized media system has three epicenters of control: Hollywood, Wall Street and Madison Avenue. This system ultimately serves the “interest, convenience and necessity” of advertisers and media conglomerates.

With less than 10 percent of today’s broadcast licenses controlled by women or people of color, is it any surprise that racist and misogynistic “shock” programming is so common?

Similarly, only 2.5 percent of radio stations have a person of color in the role of general manager, and only 4.4 percent have a racial or ethnic minority in the role of news director, according to a 2006 industry study. The percentage of women in these jobs isn’t much higher. No wonder shock jocks like Imus thrive.

Some history

It didn’t have to be this way. There’s nothing sacred about the current allocation of the public airwaves, though the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) would have us think otherwise.

More than 70 years ago, a much different media policy and system were possible.

In 1934, a coalition of colleges, labor, cultural and agricultural interests — ranging from the Boy Scouts of America to the American Council on Education — lobbied for the Hatfield-Wagner Amendment to the Communications Act. That amendment would have set aside 25 percent of all licenses for nonprofit broadcasters.

Indeed, by 1927, the U.S. had more than 200 nonprofit radio stations; about half of those were licensed to a college or university.

The NAB/Wall Street allies in the Senate ridiculed the idea of religious groups using the airwaves. One senator mocked how the FCC could divvy up licenses among the “Catholics, Protestants, and the Jews.” Another claimed the “Hindus and probably the infidels” and even the “national association of atheists” would want licenses.

Wall Street and the NAB’s deeper fears were that factory workers and farmers would use the airwaves for political speech and union organizing.


By stoking ethnic and religious fears in Congress, the NAB and Wall Street demolished the Hatfield-Wagner Amendment, thereby institutionalizing the broadcast system we have today. PBS and NPR would not come along until 1967.

Why not revisit the Hatfield-Wagner Amendment and allocate more licenses for local nonprofits?

The NAB’s long-abused “scarce spectrum” argument no longer holds water due to advances in digital broadcasting, which make more efficient use of the public airwaves possible.

Wall Street and Madison Avenue require a highly-centralized media system in order to aggregate audiences for advertisers. While this system is hugely profitable for Wall Street, its bankruptcy for our democracy and common culture is self-evident.

It’s time to bust up the “media trusts” and return some of airwaves to decentralized, nonprofit forms of control that can truly serve the public interest.

To join the growing movement for media reform, visit

Wally Bowen is executive director of the nonprofit Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN) and the low-power radio station, WPVM-103.5 FM.

article originally published at

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey