The Case for Free Air Time

In our democracy, speech is free but communication is expensive -- and never more so than during the campaign season. As the cost of political communication keeps rising, the competitive playing field of campaigns keeps tilting toward candidates who are wealthy or well-financed. The most effective way to make campaigns more competitive is to ensure that the less well-financed candidate at least has the seed resources to get a message out by creating a system of free air time on broadcast television. The broadcast airwaves are not only the most important communications medium for politics and democracy, they are also a publicly owned asset. Broadcasters, who earn huge profits from this public resource, pay the public nothing in return for its use. It is time for the public to reclaim a share of the airwaves we collectively own to strengthen our democracy.

To best achieve this goal, a free air time system should:

1) require television and radio stations to devote a reasonable amount of air time during the campaign season to issue-based candidate forums such as debates, interviews, and town hall meetings, and

2) require stations to pay a small user fee for the airwaves to provide qualifying candidates and parties with vouchers to run a reasonable number of free ads in the period before an election.

These requirements could be imposed on the broadcast industry as a reasonable part of the seven-decade-old public interest obligation broadcasters have pledged to fulfill in return for the free use of the increasingly valuable public airwaves. Or they could emerge as part of a new compact between the public and commercial licensees that better fits a 21st century concept of how best to allocate the airwaves.

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Authors:

Normal Ornstein
Paul Taylor