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Television & Radio | AROUND THE DIAL

Stations weigh what's 'fair'

With 135 gubernatorial candidates, equal-time regulations handcuff many outlets.

August 22, 2003|Steve Carney | Special to The Times

The field of candidates is as huge as the window for campaigning is tiny -- so how does a radio station comply with Federal Communications Commission rules about equal time, much less be fair and comprehensive in its coverage of the gubernatorial recall campaign?

"There's no question, it is a challenge," said Bill Davis, president of Southern California Public Radio, which operates station KPCC-FM (89.3). "When you've got nearly 150 people on the ballot, how do you provide meaningful coverage of the candidates?"

Talk station KFI-AM (640) has taken the most democratic approach: Let everyone in. The station is offering one minute of uninterrupted time during Bill Handel's show, weekdays from 5 to 9 a.m., to each of the 135 candidates seeking to replace Gov. Gray Davis. The takers for what Handel calls "60 seconds of begging" have begun airing this week.

Other stations are being a little more judicious. "Obviously you cannot interview all 135. We couldn't even if we wanted to," said Bernard Pendergrass, assistant program director at talk station KABC-AM (790). "We're trying to talk to all of the key players, period, be they Democrat, Republican, independent, whomever."

And the station isn't merely bringing on the front-runners, he said. "We're trying to get all the ones that pop up, the more entertaining people, like Gary Coleman."

FCC requirements about equal time in political races cover both advertising and programming and apply equally to radio and television. The rules say that a broadcaster who gives an opportunity to one candidate to get on the air must give the same opportunity to his or her opponents. The time slots don't have to be identical, but one can't have afternoon drive while the other gets 3 a.m. And a station that sells time for political advertising is required to charge candidates whatever cut rate they give their best advertisers.

But the rules exempt any newscast, news interview, news documentary or on-the-spot coverage of bona fide news events. Concerned broadcasters can ask the FCC if a certain program fits the agency's definition of news, while ignored candidates have a week from the date of the broadcast to petition for equal time, if the show isn't exempt. Otherwise, the agency leaves the content of those programs up to the station and its journalistic standards -- so news directors aren't forced to give the same amount of coverage to billboard queen Angeleyne as they would to Arnold Schwarzenegger or Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante.

But the FCC reminds broadcasters that along with the news exemption comes "the obligation imposed upon them under this act to operate in the public interest and to afford reasonable opportunity for the discussion of conflicting views of issues of public importance."

Other, nonexempt exposure, though, would start the meter running under equal-time rules -- one reason that candidate Arianna Huffington took leave from her stint as co-commentator on the KCRW-FM (89.9) political program "Left, Right & Center." It's akin to the reason that television stations aren't airing Schwarzenegger movies or episodes of Coleman's series "Diff'rent Strokes." The FCC has determined, and the courts have agreed, that such exposure can be a means of helping a candidate, making a station liable to give the same air time to the 134 others on the ballot.

Howard Stern was scheduled to have Schwarzenegger on his radio program Thursday morning but decided not to, concerned he would run afoul of the equal-time regulations, said Dana McClintock, spokesman for Infinity Broadcasting, which syndicates Stern's show, heard locally from 3 to 11 a.m. on KLSX-FM (97.1).

The rule creates an extra headache that broadcasters say they don't need, because they already have scarcely enough time before the Oct. 7 election to present listeners with the most viable, or at least most interesting, gubernatorial hopefuls.

Bill Davis said KPCC has already interviewed Bustamante, state Sen. Tom McClintock and others. "We want to get as many of the significant candidates as possible. We've also had some people who probably don't have much of a chance of winning, e.g. Larry Flynt," the publisher of Hustler magazine.

"It's an incredible story. And the time, the attention, the sheer amount of work that's required to stay on top of this is mind-boggling," Bill Davis said. Furthermore, with the looming specter of possible recounts or court challenges, "I would imagine this story won't be going away, even after Oct. 7."

*

Blackout broadcasts

When the lights went out last week in the Northeast, Midwest and Canada, and people's digital cable TV and high-speed Internet connections went dead, they dusted off transistor radios, scrounged for 9-volt batteries and tuned in to find out what had happened.

Others sat in their cars, enjoying the air conditioning and dialing into the mass medium least affected by the power outage.

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