Dead Air


Washington's policy makers are again debating whether to force broadcasters to give free air time to political candidates. But before issuing any new mandates, federal regulators could learn plenty of lessons from the Golden State.

California's June primaries featured deep-pocketed Democratic gubernatorial candidates Al Checchi and Jane Harman and some fiercely fought initiative campaigns. Even so, some candidates literally couldn't buy their way onto radio or television. One reason may well be existing federal regulations that force stations to sell political ads at rock-bottom prices.

The Federal Communications Commission forces broadcasters to charge candidates the same low rates they charge to their highest-volume advertisers. When a station sells time to one candidate, it is legally obligated to offer equal time to every other candidate in that race.

"In San Francisco, all the major television and radio stations made a decision not to sell time to most state and local candidates," says Mike Marshall, campaign manager for Delaine Eastin, the state's superintendent of public instruction. The Eastin campaign was unable to purchase air time in San Francisco. Marshall says Eastin was prepared to pay higher prices for air time, but was prohibited from doing so by the same FCC regulations.

The obvious answer seems to be lifting the price controls. The shortage should then disappear in much the same way Jimmy Carter's gas lines vanished during the Reagan years. But many in Washington prefer to impose new controls. President Clinton and FCC Chairman William Kennard want to force stations to give candidates free air time. A commission spearheaded by Vice President Al Gore is examining the issue, and the FCC is scheduled to launch its own inquiry sometime this year. (See "The Broadcast Giveaway," April.)

And no one seems more eager to give away free broadcast time than the print media. The Hill, a Capitol Hill newspaper, recently condemned broadcasters for "rationing" air time, and called on legislators to make advertising free. "The First Amendment means nothing if a candidate cannot deliver his messages," said a June 17 editorial.

But why should broadcasters be the only media outlets forced to give away advertising? If this "First Amendment" principle is so important, perhaps The Hill and its brethren in the print media should be forced to donate space to candidates.