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Whose Airwaves are They Anyway?

3 Pages Posted: 23 Apr 2008  

W. Kenneth Ferree

The Progress & Freedom Foundation

Date Written: January 7, 2008


Whatever happened to: Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech? In the context of broadcasting, representatives Anna Eshoo (D-CA 14th) and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI 2nd) are the latest to transgress, offering this year their "Broadcast Licensing in the Public Interest Act" (HR 4882).

Congressional critics of broadcasting often begin their attacks by asserting that the airways belong to the public. The Eshoo/Baldwin bill is no exception. But one must ask why these selfsame critics deem themselves better qualified to determine how "the public" would like its airwaves used than are broadcasters whose livelihoods depend on their ability to deliver content with broad appeal.

Broadcast licensees, after all, compete with an increasingly diverse variety of other media for a share of a highly fragmented market. As such they have an economic imperative to deliver that programming which will most interest "the public." Broadcasters no more need the government to tell them what that programming is than Macy's needs bureaucratic direction on the styles of women's shoes to sell. Divining what the public wants carried on its airwaves is therefore no more difficult than switching on your television.

If broadcasters really are to serve the public, they cannot be held hostage to the individual programming tastes of any one person or group of people - even if that group is known as Congress.

Keywords: Broadcast licensing, broadcasters, Eshoo, Baldwin, Public Interest, broadcast airwaves, public programming, public affairs, public ownership, tv programming, television programming, commercial broadcasting

JEL Classification: D4, D40, D45, H4, L82, L5, L50, O38

Suggested Citation

Ferree, W. Kenneth, Whose Airwaves are They Anyway? (January 7, 2008). Progress & Freedom Foundation Progress Snapshot Paper No. 4.1. Available at SSRN: or

W. Kenneth Ferree (Contact Author)

The Progress & Freedom Foundation ( email )

1444 Eye Street NW, Suite 500
Washington, DC 20005
United States

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