Matthew Hein

Outside Neuberger Hall, a kiosk hosts homemade posters advertising rooms for rent. On one of them, beneath the usual heading declaring the roommate search sits the particulars of the location, the size of the space and its adjacency to spots of interest. A little information about the seeker follows and a few phrases designed to give readers some idea about what kind of person posted this flier. Under that, in bold print, lie the words that get o’ the heart of the matter: Applicants should be capable of paying their rent in full and on time.

There isn’t anything special about that, of course. Everyone who has looked for a cohabiter has professed preferences. Beneath these desires, however, remains the bold type. They should pay their rent in full and on time.

Broadcasters have their preferences, just like the people who tack up those posters. They wish to educate and entertain the public. When renewing their broadcasting licenses, they pledge to serve the nation. Whenever a furor begins to swell over the great wasteland of network television, pronouncements point to the airtime network affiliates donate to good causes.

These preferences, however, play second fiddle to the bold print of the bottom line. Those wishing to inhabit the nation’s screens should be prepared to pay early and often.

How much should people with something to say expect to spend? Since the beginning of the year, Oregon television stations have made more than $6 million on political advertising, according to C-MAG data reproduced by the Alliance for Better Campaigns. That heady fee resulted from upwards of 13,000 political commercials broadcasted during this year’s campaigns.

The people at the Alliance for Better Campaigns in Washington, D.C., don’t think that depositing a few million dollars in return for political advertisements constitutes public service.

Paul Taylor, the group’s executive director, will visit Portland State University today to make his case. He is one of the half-dozen speakers signed up to participate in the Free Air Time Forum at 7 p.m. at the PSU Urban Center’s second-floor Galleria.

Taylor spent more than a decade covering politics for the Washington Post before starting the Alliance and believes the broadcast media ought to look away from the bottom line when campaign time rolls around. The Free Air Time Declaration he is currently promoting calls for broadcasters to “provide free air time for candidates immediately before all elections” or suffer the consequences – their broadcasting licenses being denied by the federal government.

Taylor will be joined – in presence, and perhaps opinions – at the forum by Dr. Regina Lawrence of PSU’s political science department. Although Lawrence acknowledges the Free Air Time Campaign may consider the forum to be an opportunity to promote and publicize its own views, she expects a “lively” evening of talk and debate.

“I hope that by trying to make it as open a forum as we can, instead of simply an advocacy event, we can approach the ideal of deliberation, citizens talking about and engaging the issues,” she said Monday.

Lawrence works and teaches on issues surrounding media, opinion and voting, so her interest in the Free Air Time Campaign comes naturally. She expected the panelists and other attendees to ask – and try to answer – “What kind of, and how much, information are voters going to get?”

Lawrence will share the floor with Dr. Tim Gleason of the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communications, state legislator and former television journalist Mark Hass, and Dr. Gerald Sussman of the PSU urban studies department. She expects Sussman to discuss “the increased roles of paid political consultants” in the election game. “We have tried to assemble a broad rage of views,” Lawrence noted.

That broad range will also include the views of PSU graduate student Ian McDonald, who she believes “has really come up with some interesting things.”

Lawrence hopes that people will show up to the forum “thinking of themselves, realistically, as voters.”

Personally, I plan to show up thinking of myself as a person posting a room-for-rent poster. I have this extra space called the airwaves. When media corporations call me up to procure licensed broadcasting space, I’ll ask them the television equivalents of those old roommate questions.

I’ll ask them if they plan to bring useful information to my home. I’ll question their honesty by checking their references. Most importantly, I’ll tell them that on the first of the month, they should be prepared to pay their share of the bills in full and on time. They’ve made more than $6 million dollars off my democracy already this year (in Oregon alone). Now it’s time for some honest information. They have sofa-surfed on my airwaves long enough. It’s time to pay up.