Political talk radio is a lucrative and influential business. Rush Limbaugh, the most powerful voice in talk radio, signed an eight-year contract extension in 2008 for a total value of about $400 million. Limbaugh’s weekly listeners number somewhere between 14 and 20 million. Limbaugh was so influential in the Republican congressional elections of 1994, in which the Republicans took control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 54 years, that the congressional Republicans made him an honorary member of the freshman class.
Some have argued that because of its influence upon the electorate and upon particular campaigns, such radio commentary should fall within applicable campaign finance regulations. It is here, in the conflict between the competing policies of the First Amendment and campaign finance regulations, that a media exemption exists, protecting talk radio from the reach of those regulations. The conflict between the protection of the press and the goals of campaign finance regulations reached a crescendo in Washington State during the 2006 election cycle, culminating with the Washington State Supreme Court 2007 decision in San Juan Island v. No New Gas Tax. This Comment argues that despite the holding of the No New Gas Tax court, Washington’s version of the media exemption should be narrowed in its application to talk show hosts, allowing it to more fully realize the goals of campaign finance regulations. Although it is difficult to draw a line that balances the competing interests of First Amendment protection and campaign finance regulations, it would be possible to narrow the media exemption so that First Amendment rights are protected, while also better achieving the goals of campaign finance reform. This Comment does not suggest that the individual conduct of a radio talk show host should force the removal of the shield of the media exemption and mandate that the broadcasting station disclose such conduct as an in-kind contribution or expenditure of a political campaign, subject to the same limits and restrictions as other contributions. Rather, this Comment argues that talk show hosts who do not equally present both sides of campaign issues should file a report with the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission showing the duration and value of the air time provided. This approach would protect the purpose of campaign finance disclosures by revealing the equivalent amount of money an opponent would have to spend to buy air time to promote their views or candidacy, while also protecting free speech interests.
Joshua M. Duffy, King Makers?: Talk Radio, the Media Exemption, and Its Impact on the Washington Political Landscape, 33 SEATTLE U. L. REV. 191 (2009).