Legal challenge: WISN and WTMJ AM radio stations gave $1 million in free airtime to Scott Walker backers violating terms of FCC licenses

Two influential right-wing Wisconsin radio stations today are under heavy fire from a media watchdog group for illegally giving away airtime to Scott Walker.

You may not know those stations by name if you’re outside the Milwaukee area but you may have heard of the notorious personalities they support:


Vicki McKenna: You may remember when she organized anti-teacher catcallers who reported to a school board meeting where they taunted teachers with candy pacifiers in New Berlin, Wisconsin

Mark Belling


Jeff Wagner

Charlie Sykes: Chief enabler of Walker’s ascendancy from bumbling Milwaukee County Executive to Governor.  Author of “A Nation of Moochers”.

UPDATE – Statement to the press from Randy Bryce:

We stand here today to announce that the Media Action Center, on behalf of citizens of the greater community of Milwaukee, is legally challenging the right of WISN and WTMJ radio to broadcast in our community.

Just like drivers are licensed by the Wiscsonsin Department of Transportation for the privilege of driving cars, radio stations are licensed by the Federal Communications Commission for the privilege of broadcasting.   The stations must renew their licenses once every eight years.  WTMJ and WISN’s licenses to broadcast will either be continued or denied in just two weeks.  We are asking the FCC to deny those licenses on grounds that they are willfully breaking existing FCC rules during political campaigns, and worse,  they are violating the First Amendment rights of members of this community.

Last spring, during the Scott Walker recall, the Media Action Center Wisconsin monitoring team proved that the radio stations WISN AM and WTMJ AM each provided supporters of Scott Walker and the GOP with about 80 minutes in free airtime every Monday through Friday.   But WISN and WTMJ refused to allow any supporters of Mayor Tom Barrett on the air at all

Both WISN and WTMJ are violating the FCC’s “quasi-equal opportunities” rule, otherwise known as the Zapple Doctrine.   The Wisconsin Broadcaster’s Association has legally advised the stations that in the 60 days prior to elections, if they give airtime to supporters of one major political party candidates, they must give time to supporters of the other major political party candidates.  Both stations ignored this advice, which proves they are willfully ignoring FCC rules surrounding political campaigns.

Hosts and guests not only praised Walker while bashing Barrett, they encouraged  people to vote for Walker, and even used the radio airwaves to recruit volunteers to work for the Walker campaign.  This use of the publicly owned airwaves shows clear political intent which is a gross violation of FCC rules.

In effect, WISN and WTMJ subsidized the Scott Walker campaign to the tune of one million dollars, but would only allow supporters of Tom Barrett on the air if they paid for time.

Media Action Center made a formal complaint to the FCC about this on My 24th of this year, but the FCC has yet to respond.  The FCC must respond to this now, as the final date for them to renew or deny these stations’ licenses is December 1st, but as that is a Saturday, they must respond by December 3rd.

I have filed a legal declaration supporting this petition to deny the renewal of WISN and WTMJ’s licenses.

The Scott Walker recall campaign lasted only 28 days.  Over that time, I noted that Walker supporters – and only Walker supporters – were allowed on WISN and WTMJ’s microphones to campaign for Scott Walker.  I, (and many others, I might add,) exercised my rights under FCC rules to demand comparable time to support the other major political party candidate, Tom Barrett.  I wrote the two stations no less than ten times each, demanding access to the airwaves to support Barrett.   WTMJ denied my requests;  WISN did not even bother to reply.

These stations are likely to claim they have First Amendment rights by airing whatever they wish.  I am here to say WISN and WTMJ are violating my First Amendment rights by denying me access to the publicly owned airwaves during political campaigns.  There is a term for what Clear Channel and Journal Communications is doing.  It is called private censorship.   That’s something the United States Supreme Court has ruled broadcasters legally cannot do.

Let me quote from Red Lion v the FCC, which is the law of the land:  “The First Amendment does not protect private censorship by broadcasters who are licensed by the Government to use a scarce resource which is denied to others.”

We the people – all the people of the Milwaukee area, own those radio airwaves.  For years, everyone in the community has known these two giant stations have been using our airwaves to cheerlead only for one political party.  It’s gotten so bad, Republicans like State Senator Ron Johnson have bragged that Milwaukee conservative talk radio is the big reason they are winning elections.

Up until now, this was just talk.  But with the Media Action Center monitoring project, we have proved it.

WISN and WTMJ management clearly do not have the character to continue operating in our community.

FCC we are now looking to you.  You have only until December 3rd to restore political balance to our publicly owned radio airwaves – for the next eight years.

FCC, deny these licenses and give them to new operators who will serve the interest of the entire community of Milwaukee.

Please see the press release below for more details.

Media Watchdog Files Legal Challenges with FCC to Pull Radio Licenses of WISN-AM and WTMJ-AM;  Study Shows Stations Gave $1 Million in Free Airtime to Scott Walker Backers

MILWAUKEE, WI – A national media watchdog announced today it has filed petitions with the Federal Communications Commission – on behalf of citizens of the greater Milwaukee area – to deny radio licenses to Clear Channel’s WISN-AM and Journal Communications’ WTMJ-AM.

These legal challenges – unlike citizen petitions – can deny the stations’ right to hold licenses to broadcast to the greater community of Milwaukee, including Rep. Paul Ryan’s district.

The FCC must rule on the case by December 1.  The decision could have national implications for Talk Radio. The FCC legal petitions can be found at:

The Media Action Center (MAC) said radio and television station owners are licensed by the FCC for the privilege of broadcasting to their local communities, much like drivers are licensed by the state for the privilege of driving a car. Stations must renew those licenses once every eight years, but the FCC must deny those licenses should the station fail to “serve the public interest, convenience, and necessity.”

MAC said it conducted a comprehensive study in May/June of 2012 – during the Scott Walker recall campaign – which clearly showed the two stations each gave supporters of Gov. Walker and the GOP about 80 minutes of free airtime daily on their local talk radio shows, while refusing any access to supporters of Mayor Tom Barrett and Democrats whatsoever.

In total, the two stations subsidized the Walker campaign with an estimated $1 million dollars in airtime.  The study documents that WISN and WTMJ hosts and guests not only exclusively promoted GOP candidates, but actively recruited volunteers for GOP campaigns over the publicly-owned airwaves, while refusing to provide any free airtime for the other side.

This, the challenge asserts, amounts to private censorship, which violates the First Amendment rights of those in the community who are denied access to the scarce publicly owned airwaves during campaigns.  It further states the stations willfully have violated existing FCC rules about comparable time, citing legal opinions from the Wisconsin Broadcasters’ Association.

“Broadcast stations have a unique duty to serve the entire public, especially during campaigns,” explains MAC director Sue Wilson.  “When a radio station uses its giant microphones to cheerlead for candidates of only one political party, no matter which political party it may be, it violates the First Amendment rights and public trust of the entire community.

“The behavior of WISN and WTMJ shows clear political intent, which violates FCC rules, as well as a lack of character to hold a broadcasting license.  The FCC must not renew those licenses and should award them to new operators,” Wilson said.


One thought on “Legal challenge: WISN and WTMJ AM radio stations gave $1 million in free airtime to Scott Walker backers violating terms of FCC licenses

  1. I left Milw. because I was tired of the extreme right-wing/ ultra-religious flavor the community was starting to develop. Moved way up north to where people are more tame.
    I wonder if this will have any implications for Faux News AND MSNBC.

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