Spurred in part by recent US comment about the decline of classical
music on US radio (See RNW
April 22)and indeed on the way in which country music
formats have been affected more by the audience the advertisers want
than by the roots of the music (See RNW
March 25), we have decided this month to consider the
questions of choice and diversity.
At first glance the ideas seem almost identical but they are not.
Choice in a country where almost everyone has limited musical or political
horizons, for example, might well lead to plenty of choice but of
the nature of counting the number of angels who could dance on the
head of a pin rather than having a concept that the devil might also
Choice is not the same as diversity but without choice there is no
diversity nor, if there is there little diversity, is there that much
Currently, we would suggest, there is a considerable danger that in
far too many areas of the world there is plenty of choice within a
very limited range but little diversity and in far too many more neither
choice nor diversity.
The question therefore, is: "What, from experience round the
world, is the best means forward to broaden both choice and diversity?"
The Free Market approach.
Either many correspondents and commentators in
the US are mistaken or the "free-market" approach,
of which the US is the most important exponent, has significant
drawbacks in encouraging diversity beyond a limited range. It's
not that there isn't a pretty wide range within the free-market
US radio industry (for example, within the broad spectrum of
talk radio, see recent items in the Canadian
National Post regarding Art Bell's show or in the New
York Times on Tavis Smiley's show on US National Public
Radio) but there is the question of whether developments are
expanding or contracting real choice.
If they are expanding it, then the argument is over but our
perception, perhaps with the notable exception of the range
from the US satellite radio companies, is to the contrary. Indeed,
if the brief given is to maximise profit with no wider concerns
about the public interest, it might well be argued that the
directors of a company are in dereliction of their duties should
they do other than choose a format that enables them to do just
this. Such a situation, we would argue, militates in favour
of a limited range of offerings designed to entice a fairly
broad range of listeners within a desired "demographic"
rather than giving broader consideration of the longer-term
effects of such a system.
Such indeed, we would suggest, was the situation before September
11 in the terms of broadcasters in general offering much of
a world perspective to US audiences - and, judging by the latest
Arbitrons - such indeed will soon be the case again as business
and entertainment exert primacy over the idea of information.
And therein may yet lie dangers that any society would sensibly
wish to avoid.
And looking at Italian TV, the free market doesn't of itself
limit an over-concentration of power in too few hands: We doubt
the US would even consider allowing Mr Berlusconi to own stations
in his position, never mind so many of them.
The State Broadcaster approach.
Even in the best days of the British Broadcasting Company andits
successor, the British Broadcasting Corporation, we think there
were drawbacks just as serious as in an unfettered free-market approach.
With the best will in the world and a system that promoted high-minded
commitment to the perceived public interest, the BBC became stuck
in its ways and delivered a product that was in its way just as
limited as that of the US: More high minded it may have been with
a worthy aim including education and information with entertainment
but it certainly lacked somewhat in drive and innovation and the
ways of those times cannot nowadays be replicated (Here we should
also remember the existence of great US network symphony orchestras
such as the NBC Symphony under Toscanini).
.In many countries, of course, there was neither the best will nor
a concomitant commitment to public interest. The result was horrendous
in terms of almost everything.
Taliban radio meets Joe Stalin isn't exactly a model we'd wish to
promote and where there is a monopoly, true diversity goes out of
A mixed system.
Overall we come down, therefore, in favour of
a mixed system providing suitable checks and balances are set
down. To us the checks and balances of power are the central genius
of the US constitution and the lessons of that document can well
serve us in looking at the best system for broadcasting. Those
lessons will remain true however much digital broadcastng may
expand the number of channels available for an area.
Whereas an unchallenged state broadcaster can easily be subject
to too much political interference or become, even with goodwill,
too unresponsive, a state broadcaster in a mixed system will always
have to consider the examples of its commercial rivals.It will
also have to find ways of keeping and attracting staff when there
is competitive pressure from those commercial rivals yet do so,
if its remit is properly thought through, in a non-commercial
manner and in the public interest.
To have commercial rivals is invaluable to the society and the
state broadcaster. The broadcaster certainly benefits from the
lessons it can learn from the rival and from staff who have worked
in the commercial sector and the society from the existence of
a service which is about other values than treating it as advertising
fodder (a commercial broadcaster, after all, is a company that
delivers an audience to the advertisers in the last resort!).
Equally, we would argue, a commercial broadcaster benefits from
the existence of a public rival. It has to bear in mind the examples
set by that rival and will benefit by those examples both in terms
of a fresh perspective and also in terms of the qualities of staff
who may work in both sectors.We would also argue that, to a degree,
a regulator can benefit diversity.
We have no problem with the concept that a licence issued to a
commercial company against the bids of others should carry with
it obligations I terms of performance. Formats in these circumstances
should not be considered as engraved on stone tablets, and indeed
they are not in most of the western world.To us, however, unless
there is no rival offering to provide a service that adds more
to the diversity available to listeners in any area, it is quite
reasonable to expect a station to deliver what it has promised
or lose its licence.
As we have argued before, the Internet, where
there is no theoretical limit on the number of stations
that can exist, and which involve more deliberate decisions
to access, should not be subject to the same rules as broadcasters
who use spectrum that is in limited supply.
At the moment, however, the economics of the Internet, for
both listener and station (even without the copyright cost
implications of the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act),
significantly constrain the take-up and delivery of Internet
What it could, however, offer eventually is a unique on-demand
access to searchable archives that terrestrial broadcasting
will never be able to match.
Diversity and choice indeed! We just hope that it does not
get choked in infancy by too many demands that it is not
yet robust to accept..
Any views? Please comment
on the above. For that matter, if you can put the time aside,
we'd like your "Guest comment" pages this year to stimulate
more feedback and dialogue.