Seventeen years ago Don Gale took over the on-air editorializing at KSL radio and television, continuing a long tradition there. Today he reaches a milestone, his 5,000th editorial without a schedule miss, a feat roughly akin to the endurance records set in basketball by the play-through-pain Mailman and John Stockton. Each of the editorials is of exactly 247 words, incrementally a staggering 1,235,000 words of commentary. And he shows no sign of slowing down.
The effort is remarkable not only for its volume and longevity but also because it continues while most other broadcasters have been too timid or reluctant to follow suit. Some who have done editorials have given them up. Only about 200 radio and TV stations across the country (there are around 11,000) editorialize at all, only a sprinkling do so regularly, and even fewer every day. At only a few does one person both write and deliver them, as Gale does.- SPEAKING OUT, especially on emotional issues, can be dangerous and a nuisance to stations by alienating listeners and viewers. A station has to believe that the benefits to the community and itself of being an opinion leader, or at least of stating its opinion as a corporate member of the community, outweigh the risks.
KSL's editorials air three times each weekday on radio, at 6:20 a.m., noon and 3:20 p.m., and twice on television, at 12:55 and 6:56 p.m., following the news. For the first eight years, Gale wrote seven a week. Never having missed a day is especially notable in view of Gale's many travels. He is vice president for news and public affairs of KSL's parent company, Bonneville International Corp., and spends a lot of time on the road at trade meetings and visiting BIC's 16 other radio stations. He keeps up to pace on writing the editorials by doing a batch ahead of time when necessary.
As every writer knows, it's tougher to write tightly than to let oneself spray words all over. The editorials not only have to be succinct but have to provide enough background and evidences to be meaningful and logical, and they must be simple without talking down to the listener. And they of course have to be interesting, they can't be stuffy and they must not sound pompous.
Gale's skill has won him a raft of awards national and local, including one of the most prestigious, a Society of Professional Journalists distinguished service award for broadcast editorializing.
- KSL GOT INTO editorializing because Arch Madsen, now the president emeritus of Bonneville, thought the stations had an obligation to do so. Madsen also insisted that the editorials deal with a broad range of topics, including the international issues he thought important to Utahns. "The Yangtze River runs down Main Street," he told his staff.
Madsen himself went on air occasionally in the early days after the station started editorializing in 1962. Later other station executives, Gale's predecessor Wes Bowen and H.L. Curtis and Joe Kjar, appeared on air.
Gale says the staff struggled for months at the outset to develop an editorial policy. There are, he says, no taboos. "Everything is up for grabs" in meetings of the KSL editorial board, which meets every week.
The topics are provocative to outrage opponents, who demand and get a chance to respond on air. About one in 10 editorials is a rebuttal - more since Gale urged the governor to veto the pro-gun bill in the last Legislature.
- THE FCC ACTUALLY forbade broadcasters from editorializing in 1941 but reversed itself in 1949. (Stations of course aired the opinions of non-staff commentators of various outlooks.) The commission reasoned in 1949 that broadcasters should editorialize as a part of their responsibility to deal with important issues as long as it provided opportunity for other sides to be heard.
That's how the FCC's "Fairness Doctrine" began. The FCC required broadcasters to seek out controversial issues in the community, to give adequate time to their discussion and to treat them with fairness and balance. Contrary to a widely held belief, the fairness doctrine never required stations to give "equal time" to all sides as does a provision (Section 315) of the FCC Act that applies only to time afforded to political candidates.
Under the deregulation thrust of the Reagan years, the FCC abandoned the fairness rule in 1987, and the courts upheld the commission. Congress had grumbled about the FCC's action, but an attempt to resurrect the doctrine ended with a Reagan veto and a promise by George Bush to veto it again if Congress should make so bold as to revive it.
- WHEN BILL CLINTON came into office it was noised around that the doctrine had a fair chance of being enacted into law, but no one supposes that in the current political climate of the country that will be likely.
Gale himself confesses some ambivalence about the doctrine. He philosophically is against any legal action that opposes unfettered speech. But he disagrees with industry newspeople who say the Fairness Doctrine actually had a chilling effect on airtime discussion. They say broadcasters feared they would run into conflict with the rule when they chose to deal with sensitive subjects. Gale says the evidences are that the rule had a positive effect on stimulating public discussion.
And public discussion, he says, is what KSL is after. "We don't claim to have a monopoly on truth, and I don't worry at all when people disagree with me."