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Published: Mon, 23 Apr 2018 00:00:00 -0400

Last Build Date: Mon, 23 Apr 2018 09:52:28 -0400


Beware Censorship by Proxy

Mon, 09 Apr 2018 09:59:00 -0400

This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times. YouTube is worried you might believe too much of what you see on its website. Amid the clamor for someone, somewhere to do something about "fake news," the company plans to attach "information cues"—excerpts from Wikipedia—to videos that touch on "a list of well-known internet conspiracies." When YouTube, Facebook or Twitter cracks down on some form of expression—conspiracy theories, radical rants, terrorist propaganda—some of the targets inevitably complain that their freedom of speech is under attack. (This feeling of victimhood may be what sent Nasim Aghdam to YouTube headquarters, gun in hand.) There is a strong retort to this: These are private platforms with a right to decide what they publish. It is no more a violation of the First Amendment for YouTube to muzzle a channel it finds offensive than it is for this newspaper to refuse to run a column calling for Minnesota to invade Wisconsin. But what if a private platform suppresses speech because it's afraid the government might otherwise step in? Just as one effective end-run around the Fourth Amendment is to ask private companies for data they slurped up on their own, the First Amendment can be sidestepped when officials pressure the private sector into self-censorship. The end result can be rules more restrictive than the companies would impose on their own—and more intrusive than the government could get away with if it tried to impose them directly. It's happened before. The Supreme Court ruled in 1915 that free-speech protections did not apply to the movies, a decision rightly reversed in 1952. In the interim, the industry opted to stave off federal regulation by establishing a series of self-censorship systems. The most powerful of these was the Production Code, which was created in 1930 but didn't really grow teeth until 1934, when Congress was mulling several bipartisan bills to tone down motion picture content. Hollywood got the message. Under the code, seduction was "never the proper subject for a comedy," plots couldn't involve "sex relationships between the white and black races," and the drug trade "should not be brought to the attention of audiences," among other tight constraints. Some filmmakers found ways to subtly subvert the restrictions. Many others threw up their hands and let their films be bowdlerized. The Federal Communications Commission directly regulates much of what can and cannot be said over the "public" airwaves. But private radio and television networks also have created their own internal Standards and Practices departments that control content, sometimes at absurd levels of caution. (Early network censors objected to terms as mild as "bloody," "bollixed" and "the W.C.") Broadcasters are not eager to offend their audiences, so some version of Standards and Practices would probably exist even without the FCC. But the desire to stay on regulators' and legislators' good side has clearly been at work in those departments' decisions as well. You can tell because the self-imposed rules eased up when federal content controls were relaxed in the 1980s. The comic book industry adopted a Comics Code after the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency held a hearing in 1954 on their products' alleged role in fostering crime. The immediate effect was to infantilize the industry, forcing a range of popular horror titles into the dustbin. The "parental advisory" labels affixed to CDs were invented following another Senate circus, the "porn rock" hearings of 1985. The stickers kept some records out of certain stores, and prompted some producers to edit songs or change album lineups to avoid the restrictions. In 1993, another set of Senate hearings inspired a comparable ratings system for video games. Those moves haven't had as much force as the rules adopted by Hollywood and the broadcasters, but that's because the threat of direct federal censorship wasn't as strong. A sort of censorship by proxy was just as clearly in effect. Now it's social media's turn. During last year's h[...]

Mexican Radio in Los Angeles Crashes—And Down With It Comes An Anti-Immigrant Fable

Fri, 08 Dec 2017 11:22:00 -0500

"Spanish-Language Broadcasters Take a Fall," read a front-page headline in the December 3 edition of the Los Angeles Business Journal. In just the past year, according to the accompanying article, the audience share of Spanish-language radio stations in the L.A. market fell two points, from 21.6 to 19.4, while their English-language counterparts saw an increase from a 56 to 58 share. It was a "dramatic drop for several outlets that spent years at or near the top," according to the paper. One of the big factors: a "shift in preferences among younger listeners in Spanish-speaking communities for English-speaking media." The story hasn't gotten much traction outside of media circles. But it's a big one in the continued assimilation saga of Mexicans in the United States. And it's one giant chinga tu madre to anti-immigrant types who have spent the last 25 years decrying the Mexican takeover of "American" airwaves in Southern California. One of their main proofs that unassimilable, backwards Mexican culture had taken over the Southland is the continued switchover of crappy pop and adult alternative stations to Latino formats. First they flooded our schools, then they took over welfare. Now their tuba music is all over the dial, and it probably plays hidden messages about how to sacrifice gringos with an obsidian knife! But L.A. radio station owners don't flip formats because of Reconquista, but because it makes business sense. Mexicans, like all people, are consumers. And Mexicans change their tastes as well—you know, like other people. So the industry keeps evolving. This is a story I've had the advantage of growing up in. I remember a January 6, 1993, Los Angeles Times story that reverberated across the country. KLAX-FM 97.9 ("La Equis"—The X) had topped the local Arbitron ratings with a formula used by all stations in the United States for decades: genius marketing, wisecracking on-air personalities, and a hot new genre that set it apart from rivals. Except this time, the language was Español. And the music was Mexican. KLAX's victory was so unexpected that classic rock station KLSX 97.1 "expressed concern" to the Times "that some of their audience may have gotten the call letters mixed up and that those listeners may have been attributed [in the Arbitron ratings] to KLAX." It was a line repeated by Howard Stern, who saw his reign as king of the L.A. airwaves toppled by what he dismissed as "some Mexican station." (KLAX, the Times reported, responded by sending Stern "a funeral wreath with a note reading: 'Thanks for helping us remain No. 1.'") KLAX's win started a good 15 years of Spanish-language domination of the Southern California airwaves, as other stations emerged to take turns at the top. The same began to happen across the United States. Smart programmers took advantage of changing demographics, and Mexican-Americans no longer ashamed of their ethnic background (see: Linda Ronstadt recording a mariachi album in 1987) wanted to listen to genres like banda sinaloense, pasito duranguense, and rock en Español that were previously available in el Norte only live or on pirated CDs. The influence of Spanish-language radio in the United States reached its peak in 2006, when DJs from across the country set aside their rivalries and urged their respective listeners to take to the streets in support of amnesty; the resulting protest marches were the largest in American history until the Women's March earlier this year. I remember this era well. My cousins and I had all grown up with the music of our parents and liked it enough, but we never thought of it as cool. KLAX changed all that. Suddenly, my older cousins went to quinceañeras decked out in tejanas (Stetsons), silk shirts, and cintos piteados (leather belts with arabesque designs). I'll spare you the visuals of me dressed like this as a gawky 13-year-old nerd, but I can say this: All along, we primarily spoke English and listened to hip hop at home. To anti-immigrant zealots, our choice of music and dress became further proof of the M[...]

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting Turns 50

Tue, 07 Nov 2017 12:23:00 -0500

Fifty years ago this week, Lyndon Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, the law that created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. I've been writing about the CPB for two of its five decades; here's a sampling of those stories: • "With Friends Like These" (July 24, 1997): A paper I wrote for Cato on the ways the CPB has made independent, listener-funded, volunteer-driven community radio stations blander and less accountable to their communities. This is out of date in all sorts of ways, but the history I discuss is still relevant. And there may be some broader lessons in my explanation of a cycle built into the CPB's subsidies: The limited amount of money the state has to offer requires it to discriminate on some rational basis—if the CPB dispensed funds to every small community station in America, it would have to divide its budget so finely that no station would receive enough money to justify the corporation's existence. So the CPB strives to direct its money to the stations with the most powerful signals and the largest measured audiences and shies away from financing more than one outlet in a single market. But the CPB requirements encourage stations to grow and adopt "professional" values, putting further pressure on the CPB's budget and forcing it to further restrict the flow of money, refueling the cycle yet again. If the CPB's budget is expanding anyway—as it did during the Carter years, for example—the cycle might be slowed and the problem concealed. If the budget is contracting, as it is today, the problem only gets worse. Under any circumstances, the professionalization and expansion cycle is built into the federal subsidies; it cannot be eliminated by minor reforms or by putting a friendlier group of bureaucrats in charge. • "It Didn't Begin with Sesame Street" (October 1997): I review Ralph Engelman's book Public Radio and Television in America: A Political History. Among other things, the article discusses the birth of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting; it also looks at the handful of public TV stations that existed before the CPB, when some social engineers at the Ford Foundation argued that "educational television" (as it was then known) could be a force for social uplift, "an instrument for the development of community leaders," even "a form of psychotherapy." • "Independent Airwaves" (March 2001): I interview a man with a plan to "restructure public broadcasting as an independent public trust." His group was split between people who wanted a completely independent institution and people who just wanted to rearrange how the government gives broadcasters money. • Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America (2001): The CPB isn't the only topic I cover in this book, but it's a significant part of it. • "The Way to Sesame Street" (November 2009): For Sesame Street's 40th birthday, I looked at the complicated social legacy of a show that "reflected both an antipathy to commercialism and a fascination with commercials, which served not just as a source for its parodies but as a model for its programming." We had to make some cuts to the piece to fit it into a two-page spread; I posted some of the outtakes, including the tale of the time an executive mistook Jim Henson for a member of the Weather Underground, on my personal blog. • "Radio Theater" (February 2011): Republicans have repeatedly threatened to defund the CPB. Not only do these standoffs always end with the institution still standing, but in the long run its budget keeps growing. This article takes a tour through the history of those fights, arguing that the real point of these exercises isn't to cut the broadcasters loose. It's to use the threat of cutting them loose to whip them into shape. The system was still standing after Nixon made his threats, but all save one of the programs he found objectionable went off the air. After the Gingrich-era battle ended, the Republican pundits Fred Barnes, Peggy Noonan, and Ben Wattenberg all land[...]

FCC Chief Promises Crackdown on Unlicensed Broadcasting

Fri, 06 Oct 2017 13:59:00 -0400

Federal Communications Commission chief Ajit Pai has a reputation as a deregulator, but when it comes to unlicensed broadcasting he's been tightening rather than loosening the noose. "Since becoming Chairman," he declared in a statement last week, "I've made it quite clear that the FCC won't tolerate the unauthorized and illegal use of the radio spectrum. Towards that end, I've made it a Commission priority to crack down on pirate radio operations." Some of you might think pirate radio is an anachronism in an age of internet streaming. (Some of you might think that about radio, period.) But it's still around. Unlicensed broadcasters still homestead unused spots on the spectrum, and the FCC still wants to drive them away, whether or not they're actually interfering with anyone else's signals. Pai's statement came alongside an apparent escalation in the war on piracy: His agency wants to slap Radio Touche Douce, a Haitian station in Miami, with a fine of $144,344. That's the highest possible penalty for the violation; The Miami Herald reports that two FCC officials "can't recall the last time a station was hit so hard." What's more, the commission is taking the rare step of fining not just the broadcaster but his landlords, arguing that they did not merely host the antenna but actively conspired to keep the operation afloat. John Anderson of DIYmedia isn't convinced this crackdown will amount to much. He points out that these particular pirates have been on the government's radar screen for years; the case, he writes, "represents the aggregate efforts of nearly a decade's worth of FCC personnel and resources to shut down two pirate radio stations, which—when busted hard—combined forces to continue on, not even bothering to move locations." Anderson isn't persuaded that "an extra zero tacked onto the amount is going to change matters one whit." And even if it does work this time, he doesn't think this fine-the-landlord approach will be all that useful a tool for the feds if they try to apply it nationwide. Anderson is surely right that the FCC doesn't have the resources to put a big dent in unlicensed broadcasting across the country. The most potent threat to pirate radio right now isn't the government; it's the possibility that radio itself, licensed or not, will gradually lose its audience as the Americans who grew up with the medium die off. That said, even if the commission can't kill pirate broadcasting as a phenomenon, it may well make life difficult for several particular pirates and their fans. The first full-length feature I wrote for Reason, way back in 1995, was about the FCC's attempts to stop the then-burgeoning movement of pirate "microbroadcasters." I touched on the subject again in my first cover story for the magazine after I joined the staff in 1999, and a couple years after that I finished a book, Rebels on the Air, that digs deep into the history of illicit transmissions. If nothing else, Pai's clampdown is giving me a strong sense of déjà vu. This isn't the world's first crackdown on unlicensed broadcasting. So I'll wrap this up with an artifact from another place and time. Back in 1965, British Pathé spent a couple days filming the crew of Radio Caroline, one of the offshore stations that challenged the BBC's monopoly in the '60s by transmitting pop music from outside the U.K.'s territorial waters. Part of this footage then appeared in a short film about life on the water. Half a century later, Pathé posted both that film and a bunch of outtakes from it online; Lion Keezer then edited the relevant footage together, adding recordings of Radio Caroline DJs and some period-appropriate music (the Kinks, Roy Orbison, Martha and the Vandellas). The result is a nice little window on the days when pirates ruled the waves: src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="640" height="480" frameborder="0"> (For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)[...]

Impeach Eisenhower!

Fri, 07 Jul 2017 12:29:00 -0400

Impeachment talk has been in the air this week, with rallies in dozens of cities calling for Donald Trump to be ousted from office. Impeachment talk has been in the air for nearly a quarter-century now—you have to go back to George H.W. Bush for a president who didn't inspire a big chunk of the opposition to talk about kicking him out of the White House, and even then there was a small chunk of the opposition who wanted to kick him out of the White House. There always is.

In that spirit, here's the anarcho-pacifist Beat writer Lawrence Ferlinghetti reading his 1958 poem "Tentative Description of a Dinner to Promote the Impeachment of President Eisenhower" (with bonus video footage assembled ably by an anonymous YouTuber):

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If you'd rather read to yourself than be read to, you can see the text of the poem here.

Ferlinghetti's four pages of antiwar verse did not inspire a mass movement to remove Eisenhower from office (nor was that the point), but it did help inspire a young broadcaster named Lorenzo Milam to try to start a pacifist radio station in Washington, D.C. I tell that story in chapter three of my book Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America; the short version is that it was 1958, the Cold War was in full swing, and the FCC wasn't about to license a dissident radio outlet in the nation's capital. After two years Milam gave up, applied for a license in Seattle instead (on the theory that maybe the authorities wouldn't care about an outlet located far away from the nation's capital), eventually got the go-ahead, and founded KRAB-FM, which in turn inspired a wave of listener-supported non-state, non-commercial radio stations around the country. Not a bad legacy. Certainly a better legacy than actually impeaching Eisenhower, which would've just saddled us with Richard Nixon a decade early.

(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)

Shakespeare and the Assassins

Fri, 16 Jun 2017 11:59:00 -0400

(image) Last weekend's Big Fake Outrage involved a Shakespeare-in-the-Park production of Julius Caesar that features a Caesar based on Donald Trump. Caesar, as every schoolboy knows, is murdered in Act 3, so the show was denounced as "assassination porn" (note: the play is famously anti-assassination) that proves just how uniquely crazy Trump has made people (note: modernized productions of Julius Caesar are a cliché, and just a few years ago a high-profile performance featured a Caesar based on Barack Obama). Under different circumstances the hubbub might have faded by now, but on Wednesday some jerk tried to kill a bunch of congressmen and then some people started suggesting he was somehow influenced by the play (note: that's nuts). So we're still hearing about it.

But enough about Julius Caesar. Want to know what a tasteless assassination-themed appropriation of Shakespeare really sounds like? Check out MacBird!, Barbara Garson's MacBeth parody in which Lyndon Johnson plots the death of John F. Kennedy. Below you can hear a performance directed by Phil Austin, of Firesign Theatre fame, that aired on one of the Pacifica radio stations in 1967. If you'd rather read the script, it's here; but honestly, it's more fun when you can hear the actors' faux-Kennedy accents:

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The original performance of the play starred Stacy Keach in the LBJ role. Sadly, I don't have a recording of that one.

Bonus links: Matthew Lasar has more on MacBird! here. Garson has a cameo in my review of a rather different piece of literature here. For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here. For another Friday A/V Club with a Firesign Theatre connection, go here.

How Deregulation Gave Us FM Radio, HBO, and the iPhone

Mon, 22 May 2017 14:14:00 -0400

"We've gone to a modern [broadcast] system that has a lot of places where stuff can happen without permission," says Thomas W. Hazlett, who's the FCC's former chief economist, a professor at Clemson University, and author of the new book The Political Spectrum: The Tumultuous Liberation of Wireless Technology, from Herbert Hoover to the Smartphone. "And we have seen that the smartphone revolution and some other great stuff in the wireless space has really burgeoned...That comes from deregulation." So-called net neutrality rules are designed to solve a non-existent problem and threaten to restrict consumer choice, Hazlett tells Reason's Nick Gillespie. "The travesty is there's already a regulatory scheme [to address anti-competitive behavior]—it's called antitrust law." Greater autonomy and consumer freedom led to the development of cable television, the smartphone revolution, and the modern internet. While we've come a long way from the old days of mother-may-I pleading with the FCC to grant licenses for new technology, Hazlett says, "there's a lot farther to go and there's a lot of stuff out there that's being suppressed." He points to the history of radio and television. Herbert Hoover and Lyndon Johnson exercised extraordinary control over spectrum allocation, which they used for their own political and financial gain. With liberalization, we now have hundreds of hours of varied television programming as compared to the big three broadcast networks of the '60s, an abundance of choices in smartphone providers and networks as compared to the Ma Bell monopoly, and more to come. Hazlett also discusses his views on current FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, how the FCC delayed the arrival of cable television to protect incumbent broadcasters, and "the most infamous statement ever made by an FCC regulator" in a 1981 Q&A with Reason magazine. Interview by Nick Gillespie. Edited by Justin Monticello. Cameras by Todd Krainin and Mark McDaniel. Music by RW Smith. Subscribe to our YouTube channel. Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.Subscribe to our podcast at iTunes. This is a rush transcript—check all quotes against the audio for accuracy. Nick Gillespie: HI. I'm Nick Gillespie for Reason. Today, we're talking with Thomas Winslow Hazlett, an economics professor at Clemson, a long-time Reason contributor, former chief economist at the Federal Communications Commission, and author most recently of the epic new book, The Political Spectrum: The Tumultuous Liberation of Wireless Technology, from Herbert Hoover to the Smartphone. Tom, thanks for talking to us. Thomas Hazlett: Thanks for having me, Nick. Nick Gillespie: Your book is a masterful counterblast, I think, to the intellectual status quo when it comes to broadcasting, cable, Internet, especially related to things like spectrum auctions and net neutrality and whatnot. Your large argument is that government inhibits innovation rather than encourages it. Is that accurate? Thomas Hazlett: Yeah, that's the starting point, but I certainly go farther, a lot farther in this book, because there has been significant liberalization, and we learn a lot from the directions we've gone. We see the suppression through administrative allocations of spectrum, which just means that we have this Mother-may-I system where the government's in charge of who does what in wireless and has to give explicit permission. We've gone from a system like that to a modern system that has a lot of places where stuff can happen without permission. Nick Gillespie: Right. Thomas Hazlett: We have seen that what we call perhaps the smartphone revolution and some other great stuff in the wireless space has really burgeoned. We have these emerging networks and these ecosystems. That comes from deregulation. Nick Gillespie: Is it deregulation or is it government ... I guess and different examples, and we'll talk about those, but sometimes it's explicit der[...]

The Social Media of 1939

Fri, 17 Feb 2017 12:43:00 -0500

(image) In the first two decades of the 20th century, a new subculture embraced a new technology. Ham radio operators built their own transmitters, traded and modified each other's designs, negotiated complicated covenants that let them share the unregulated ether, and formed groups to enforce the rules. They battled the military (figuratively speaking) for the right to use the airwaves, and they invented broadcasting at a time when virtually everyone assumed that radio would be used only for point-to-point communication. They were often young, often anonymous, and often prone to pranks. They were the social media of a century ago, and you can draw whatever parallels you'd like between their subculture and the subcultures of today.

Before long the government would be regulating the airwaves, broadcasting would be professionalized, and the ham operators would be confined to their own segment of the spectrum, where the rules they followed became more strict. But on that reservation they kept their kind of social media alive. Here is an artifact from that middle period of amateur radio, after the anarchic early era but before it stopped seeming unusual to hear live voices from another side of the world: a 1939 "Pete Smith specialty" called Radio Hams.

Smith, then famous and now forgotten, narrated dozens of short films in the '30s, '40s, and '50s, the bulk of which were comedies. There is some comedy here, but it's mostly serious—we even get a couple of deaths:

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Yes, it's kind of awkwardly made. (This was a common hazard in the Pete Smith series.) If you'd like to see a more lyrical piece of filmmaking about the Depression-era hams, you'd do better to watch the 1938 picture Love Finds Andy Hardy. Most of the movie is unexceptional, but—to quote my old obit for Mickey Rooney—"about an hour into the picture, there's a quietly engrossing amateur-radio sequence, a wonderful moment that belongs in the syllabus of any class on the prehistory of cyberspace." I unfortunately can't embed that series of scenes, but if you want to watch the whole film you can find it here.

Bonus links: I found that Pete Smith short via this essay at Ken Dowell's blog off the leash. Dowell's post also quotes my book Rebels on the Air, which includes a long discussion of the early days of amateur radio. But the bit he cites is on another subject: unlicensed community radio in northern Canada.

(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)

Will Donald Trump Cut Public Broadcasting Loose, Or Will He Decide He's the Man to Make It Great Again?

Mon, 23 Jan 2017 17:25:00 -0500

The press is aflutter with talk that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting may be headed for the chopping block. More specifically, The Hill informs us that Trump staffers have been "discussing" the "privatization" of the CPB. In other words, we don't actually know what's happening. "Discussing" means the administration hasn't settled on a plan; "privatization" could take many forms. Nor do we know how any particular proposal will play out politically. Usually I roll my eyes during these debates, knowing that for all the apocalyptic rhetoric they inspire they have invariably ended with the CPB still in the budget. Occasionally it gets a funding cut, but even those tend to be erased within a few years. But as you may have noticed, our new president is unpredictable. Given all the allegedly impossible things that have happened lately, you can't just assume past will be prologue, even if the forces that have kept the CPB alive in the past are still at work. That said: The forces that have kept the CPB alive in the past are quite definitely still at work. Back in 2011, when congressional Republicans were threatening to cut off NPR's money because it had fired Juan Williams, I offered a brief tour through the history of the We're Going To Defund Public Broadcasting show. The Williams spat, I wrote, was a more exciting hook for the drama than the one Richard Nixon used in 1971, when presidential pique at the Eastern liberals who dominated PBS spurred him to propose a "return to localism" that would have kneecapped the crowd in charge of the system. On the other hand, it doesn't have the cloak-and-dagger spirit that the State Department flunky Otto Reich brought to the play in 1985, right after Ronald Reagan's reelection, when he met with NPR staffers in a smoky little room and warned them that the White House thought they were "Moscow on the Potomac." Nor is it as colorful as the 1993 spectacle starring Bob Dole and David Horowitz, who attacked the radical Pacifica network rather than NPR, providing an opportunity to quote a much weirder series of statements than anything in the Juan Williams kerfuffle. ("We didn't have Satan before the white man. So the white man is Satan himself.") And the exclusive focus on NPR this time around means the stakes don't feel as high as they did in 1994, when Speaker-elect Gingrich started musing that he might "zero out" the entire public broadcasting budget. A decade later, a House subcommittee heightened the dramatic tension by voting to eliminate federal support for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) altogether. That element of danger was a suspenseful touch. While there are Republicans who honestly think the government shouldn't be in the business of subsidizing public broadcasters, there are more Republicans—or, at least, more powerful Republicans—who just think the government should be subsidizing a slightly different group of public broadcasters. As I wrote in 2011, "The system was still standing after Nixon made his threats, but all save one of the programs he found objectionable went off the air. After the Gingrich-era battle ended, the Republican pundits Fred Barnes, Peggy Noonan, and Ben Wattenberg all landed gigs at PBS—and following an initial cut, the CPB's budget crept back upward. The funding fight under George W. Bush took place against the backdrop of a conservative CPB chief crusading for a more right-friendly PBS and NPR." (*) These exercises may not cut public broadcasters loose, but they do whip them into line. Needless to say, it would be completely in character for Trump to try a trick like that. (Sample scenario: He ruminates about funding cuts, PBS adds a MAGA voice or two to its lineup, and then the president declares public television a great American institution.) On the other hand, it would also be in character for Trump to endors[...]

Talking Obama's Legacy and Trump's Presidential Powers: Nick Gillespie

Thu, 12 Jan 2017 15:26:00 -0500

Earlier today, I was on the Keith Larson Show, talking about how Donald Trump will receive massive and enhanced powers as president, thanks in part to Barack Obama. Larson, a long-time North Carolina talker, is posting his shows at SoundCloud (below) and also TuneIn, iTunes, and Stitcher. Go here for more info on that.

I join the show below at the one-hour mark.

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NPR Does Alex Jones

Tue, 06 Dec 2016 21:13:00 -0500

All Things Considered's David Folkenflik did a report today on the conspiracy-chasing talk-show host Alex Jones. Because I wrote a book about conspiracy theories, I was one of the people Folkenflik interviewed. You can listen to it here:

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Folkenflik's story leads with last weekend's PizzaGate shooting, in which an Alex Jones fan fired a rifle in a D.C. pizza joint because he believed child sex slaves were being held there. But Folkenflik interviewed me on Friday—two days before the incident—so I didn't say anything about that. Instead I'm quoted on the general contours of Jones' worldview. The written version of the report extends my cameo a little longer than it lasts on the radio, adding a line that contrasts my thoughts on Jones' politics with the Southern Poverty Law Center's views on the topic.

When I was chatting with Folkenflik, I mentioned that if I ever write a profile of Jones, the two people I'd most want to interview for it are the filmmakers Richard Linklater and Mike Judge. Linklater put Jones in his 2001 movie Waking Life, and it's a rather interesting scene to watch now that Jones has attracted national notoriety. Jones is generally understood as a "right-wing" guy, and I understand why that's so. (He certainly isn't a leftist.) But he slips easily into the Phildickian film's countercultural worldview, condemning "dehumanization," "classism," "systems of control," and "this corporate slave state" as he drives through a dreamscape:

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And Judge? Jones conducted a chummy interview with the Beavis and Butt-head and King of the Hill creator back in 2013. It's a pretty fascinating conversation, especially when the talk turns to Dale Gribble, King of the Hill's resident conspiracy theorist. Dale, Judge chuckles, "probably gives you guys a bad name":

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It's not easy to imagine, say, Rush Limbaugh delivering the rant in the first video or the interview in the second. Any accounting of Alex Jones' worldview—and of the place he occupies in our cultural terrain—needs to consider the question of what people like Linklater and Judge see in the man, and vice versa.

Obligatory advertisement: As I said at the top, I wrote a book about conspiracy stories. It's called The United States of Paranoia, and if you find this stuff interesting you may find the book interesting too. But I should probably note upfront that it mentions Jones just once, and only fleetingly at that.

Talkin' Clowns on the Radio

Wed, 12 Oct 2016 08:02:00 -0400

Because I can't stop writing about clowns, people ask me to go on the radio to talk about clowns. Here are two recent interviews about the Big Bozo Scare—the first, from last Friday, with the Calgary show At Night with Dan Riendeau...

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...and the other, from yesterday, with The Blaze's Pat and Stu:

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In other news, the AP reports that "Ronald McDonald is keeping a low profile with reports of creepy clown sightings on the rise." Naturally.

Jerry Doyle, RIP. Radio Host and Babylon 5 Star Was 60.

Fri, 29 Jul 2016 11:26:00 -0400

(image) I'm saddened to announce the death of Jerry Doyle, who hosted a great nationally syndicated radio show out of Las Vegas that Reason staff appeared on dozens (and perhaps hundreds) of times over the years. Doyle was also a cast member of the fondly remembered science fiction show Babylon 5, on which he played "Mr. Garibaldi." He also wrote at the site Epic Times, a treasure trove of commentary and links. Doyle, born in Brooklyn and raised in New Jersey, was 60 years old. The exact cause of death isn't known.

It was always a pleasure to appear on Doyle's show even though (or because?) we didn't agree on everything. He was a rare talk radio host who wasn't a rabid ideologue or partisan. Instead, he was funny, self-deprecating, and always measuring issues by how they affected everyday people. What he liked about Reason was that we weren't coming at things from the same old, same old position. He spoke with the restrained and resigned anger and annoyance of someone who wanted something different in American life and politics, and his rallying cry was "It's not Left vs Right, it's right vs wrong!" I know in my case at least, that led him to call bullshit on me if he thought I was getting too abstract in my examples or thinking. He also had a great sense of humor. Because of the time difference, I often appeared on the show around dinner time in the Eastern Time Zone and one time I was in the middle of chopping vegetables for a meal when his call came. I tried to continue my prep quietly but he heard the tap tap tap of the knife and asked, "Are you cooking dinner, Dr. Gillespie?" (he insisted on calling me by that honorific, both as a sign of respect and as a good-natured way to bust my balls). "At least tell us what you're making."

RIP, Jerry Doyle, the airwaves are diminished by your passing. Reason's deepest condolences to your family, friends, and audience.

His show's Facebook page is here.

The Back Door to the Radio Dial

Wed, 06 Jul 2016 16:23:00 -0400

(image) In theory, the lowest frequency on the FM dial is 87.9 megahertz. But many radios, especially in older cars, go a little lower, allowing listeners to pick up a signal at 87.7 FM—a spot allocated to whichever TV station broadcasts on channel 6. Not that there are many stations left at channel 6 these days.

This would just be a piece of trivia from the rapidly receding age of analog television, but for one fact: Some clever broadcasters are now using that spot as a back door to the FM dial, slipping uninvited into a marketplace where the government has long enforced high entry barriers. Technically these are low-power TV stations, and they transmit a pro-forma video signal to keep things legal. But they're producing programs aimed at radio listeners. "This phenomenon has proven helpful for certain types of audiences underserved by traditional radio," Ernie Smith notes in an engaging story for the website Tedium, and it "has led to a number of small stations, such as Cleveland's Latino-focused 'La Mega'...finding a new home on the dial." In the industry, such outlets are nicknamed "FrankenFMs."

If that doesn't sound like a friendly nickname, that's appropriate: Some broadcasters have less-than-friendly feelings about the TV-on-the-radio stations. The left end of the FM dial is reserved for noncommercial stations, such as NPR's affiliates. Unsurprisingly, NPR doesn't like the interlopers. (As Smith puts it, "NPR friggin' hates FrankenFM.") In 2014, when the Federal Communications Commission considered a proposal to embrace the FrankenFM stations, the public radio network filed comments attacking the idea.

Much as I admire the ingenuity of the back-door FM broadcasters, I have to agree with one of NPR's arguments: The FCC could fit a lot more operations onto the airwaves by opening that part of the spectrum up to traditional FM broadcasters, as opposed to simply tolerating some TV licensees who have found a loophole. As far as I'm concerned, the commission may as well extend the FM band all the way down to 82 megahertz, guarantee the existing FrankenFMs a space among the new licensees, and then open the door to new comers. In the age of internet broadcasting, the old limits on who can have an FM signal aren't the chokehold that they used to be; but I'm always glad to see more rather than fewer options.

Talkin' Orlando Conspiracy Theories on Public Radio

Mon, 20 Jun 2016 13:33:00 -0400

(image) I'll be discussing Orlando Pulse Massacre conspiracy theories today on Press Play, a show on the Santa Monica public radio station KCRW. The program starts at 12 Pacific Time, 3 Eastern; around 10 minutes after that, I'll start chiming in. To listen live, go here. For more from me on Orlando conspiracy chatter, go here. For more from me on conspiracies in general, go here.

Update: A podcast of the program is posted here.