In thinking about what we'd like from 2003 from radio round the world,
two prime themes eventually came to the fore as to what we would like
to see within the mix of political and technological change that is
likely to come within the year.
In the short term the change is likely to be most affected by politics
with pressures a round the world for more deregulation; first on the
block is likely to be the US where Federal Communications Commission
chairman Michael Powell seems likely to get his way with further easing
of ownership regulation but others are likely to follow, in particular
In the longer term, technology may, as so often, have the greater
impact and this year could well shape digital broadcasting on both
sides of the Atlantic.
In both areas, we feel the most important elements are of balance
between opposing claims rather than decisions being made on the basis
of an overwhelming principle.
In the area of regulation, we can see the arguments
for both sides and find neither side providing arguments to
overwhelm its opposition and thus conclude that the best we
can do is ensure a reasonable balance of freedoms and obligations.
Experience in the past does seem to show that even the largest
of media corporations can shoot themselves in the foot fairly
successfully and to a considerable extent audience decisions
about what they will listen to or put up with outweigh any regulatory
regime for commercial stations.
When it comes to matters of a variety of news and information
sources, the marketplace has done better than state monopolies
in most countries at most times, but we still have some niggling
concerns in an overwhelmingly commercial environment like that
of the US that commercial pressures of themselves tend to limit
most stations in terms of taking unpopular stances, whatever
the evidence in support of them may be. We are also concerned
about broadcasters opting to drop news or largely rely on agency
sources and talk and opinions in place of doing their own reporting.
We therefore conclude that the healthiest balance is where there
are separate and reasonably competitive commercial and public
broadcasting sectors combined with some framework for commercial
operators using public airwaves; it is also essential that the
state or politicians should not have too much control over either
the public broadcaster (NHK, in Japan, for example often seems
to be inhibited about taking on vested political interests)
or both sectors (as, we would suggest is currently the case
in Italy and Russia, for example).
In the case of the US we think all might benefit were public
radio's news output more strongly financed because, although
recognising that people cannot be forced to become informed
they should nevertheless reasonably expect that a strong news
service is available for the times when it is needed. In this
area, US commercial radio is not particularly strong just as
it is significantly under-strength when it comes to classical
or many other minority music services.
We come back here to the BBC brief to educate, inform and entertain
and think it quite fair to say that commercial pressures push
the balance towards the latter (as indeed may pressures for
ratings on a public broadcaster); thus we have no time for the
hypocrisy of most commercial broadcasters who call for a "level
playing field" when what they want is to maximise their
profits and are quite happy to both evade their own wider responsibilities
and try to weaken a public broadcaster that is providing them.
Where regulations limit to a degree how far a broadcaster can
change a station format or drop any obligations to cover local
or wider news, we are quite happy to see a greater concentration
of ownership than when no such restraints are imposed; we thus
come to an ironic conclusion that those countries such as Canada
and the UK, which have more ownership restrictions and licence
requirements than the US can more safely loosen them than can
In the US it does not seem likely that regulators will gain
the power to do other than enforce technical regulations (which
came in for the benefit of the broadcaster) and a minimal degree
of "indecency" control so we would tend towards agreeing
with the concerns of the (minority) Democrats on the Federal
In the UK, however, more controls are to be retained so we have
fewer concerns about consolidation although we do think that
until and unless the US allows foreign ownership of broadcast
licences, all other countries should prohibit US control of
We thus end up hoping that the US retains most of the regulations
it now has for radio but more relaxed about deregulation in
the UK but also hopeful that the debate in the US will lead
to proper public consideration of the balance of benefits between
controls to encourage broadcasting that a society feels desirable
and allowing the market to have free reign.
In technological matters, some areas will prove beyond the powers
of authorities to control because developments to come will make
nonsense of past decisions.
We do remain concerned however that there should be informed public
discussion of the balance between various uses of the spectrum.
As long as there are incompatible versions of digital radio, we
remain in favour of the retention of analogue AM and FM broadcasting
in all countries, whatever the sums governments may think they can
get from selling off spectrum for various telecommunications uses.
This would preserve the ability to listen across borders or AM and
short-wave signals and to travel the world with a convenient and
compact radio that can be used anywhere.
This leads us to have some sympathy for digital audio broadcasting
using existing spectrum as has been decided in the US through the
adoption of iBiquity's in-band- on-channel technology. At the same
time this technology is to us clearly inferior in its potential
to the Eureka system using different spectrum that has been adopted
in most of the rest of the world and may yet prove to be no better
than software-assisted AM and FM receivers.
On balance, therefore, our preferred endgame would be successful
development of chips to improve AM and FM reception, thus enabling
older and cheap sets to continue in use but also giving listeners
the option to choose to spend a little more and get a better reception.
Along with this, having additional services on separate DAB frequencies
(the UK policy) seems to offer the widest likely choice in terms
of programming and quality of reception.
We thus tend to feel iBiquity will again saddle the US with a system
that is inferior but acceptable and hope that the rest of the world
will pass it by, whatever pressures may be brought to bear, that
AM and FM and shortwave will long continue but that software developments
will enhance the technical quality of their reception.