In looking at the roots from which public broadcasting
sprang we will concentrate on the divergence between the two
prime English-language countries at the time when radio began
- the UK and the US, which took different paths in the 1920s,
the UK going for a state corporation and the US for a commercial
In considering why the UK took the route it did we note that
long before broadcasting pretty well all societies had moved
to ensure that some things were government controlled - armies
being a prime example - and other institutions had grown up
that were distinct from the state - religions being a prime
example albeit in some societies they often retained massive
power and could frequently veto moves by governments.
Following the industrial revolution, the institutions that
had been satisfactory for societies based on farming and small-scale
manufacturing became inadequate for many requirements and
various societies began to move towards provision of public
services on various scales.
There introductions did not spring from some mad left-wing
ideology but from the needs of society itself - for better
educated people to serve the requirements of the society and
industry that led to public schools (the American usage
not the British perversion of the word); for provision
of services that were perceived as natural monopolies such
as gas and water utilities that the British Midland industrialist
Joseph Chamberlain - no "pinko" he - persuaded
the city of Birmingham to purchase. Chamberlain was also behind
the 1875 Artisans Dwelling Act that allowed corporations
to purchase slum property for the purpose of clearance and
thus to redevelop the city.
Other public sector developments included the creation of
national postal services and the British government took control
of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (which became
British Petroleum) in 1911 on behalf of the
Royal Navy at the behest of Winston Churchill,
then head of the British Admiralty (State accident and health
insurance plus pensions we would note were first introduced
by Otto von Bismarck - a conservative if ever there
Thus when broadcasting became possible there was in Europe
a tradition of public services and corporations that had been
introduced in response to particular situations, to head off
political protests, serve for development, or aid government
power and control: Out of that context and Victorian high-mindedness
that, felt that chances had to be given through public libraries,
museums and so on for the poor should have a chance to educate
themselves out of poverty, sprang the world's first public
broadcaster, the British Broadcasting Corporation
which was formed in 1927 as a monopoly based on its predecessor
the British Broadcasting Company that had been
set up by manufacturers in 1922 to promote demand for their
This beginning, which was widely followed, generally led to
broadcasters that did not carry advertising, had lofty remits
but were often very much under the thumbs of governments:
In the US, development came via the commercial route - and
started off in wireless telegraphy days with what could be
thought of as similar to the early dot.com boom - with many
companies selling stock as vastly inflated prices based on
visions of vast - and non-existent- profits.
In the early days US radio was also commercial free and it
was not until 1922 that AT&T began promoting
the idea of using advertising programming - it initially claimed
its patents gave it a monopoly over radio advertising - and
paved the way for the development of US commercial radio.
In regulatory terms the 1934 US Communications Act ratified
the existing commercial structure and there was no fundamental
debate over the next 60 years until the 1996 Telecommunications
Act that many regard as going even further in giving
the big corporations most of what they wanted.
In the UK there was no advertising- funded radio until 1973
when franchised advertised following the passage of the 1972
Sound Broadcasting Act had been granted and even the
commercial lobby failed to get what it really wanted, an easy
and cheap to operate national pop station that would follow
in the wake of the pirate stations and they anticipated would
be hugely profitable; instead they had to provide public service
radio funded by advertising.
The results of
different approaches in the UK and USA
The result of the regulatory regimes
in the UK and USA it would be fair to say was that with notable
exceptions UK broadcasting was heavily skewed towards the
uplifting and what could be termed "establishment"
values whereas that in the US the skew was towards entertainment.
The prime effects of this we would argue was that in the UK
the main audience "deprivation" before commercial
radio was introduced was of pop music partly ameliorated by
listening to Radio Luxembourg on AM and later
by the pirate stations before BBC Radio 1 was launched. The
system was also more "general" rather than being
one of tight formats.
In the US, apart from the fact that commercial imperatives
meant that rural areas were comparatively under-served, we
would argue the result was that for most of the country there
came to be virtually no radio drama or current affairs, comparatively
little news cover in depth although plenty of headlines, and
not that much classical music, educative or for that matter
really informative programming.
The main emphasis was of course on shortcomings in TV and
when Public Broadcasting was approved in 1967, primarily as
a means to set up a national non-commercial television system
radio was virtually ignored - it was added to the legislation
at the last minute after a determined campaign by a few enthusiasts
from educational radio (RNW note:
For further details and quite a good yarn see Listener
Supported: The Culture and History of Public Radio, by Jack
W. Mitchell. There is also an article by Mitchell about
the fight to get radio into what was to have been the Public
Television Act (it became the Public Broadcastings Act) -
and the Corporation for Public Television ( It became the
Corporation for Public Broadcasting- CPB) - in Current
Magazine this month.).
Since then National Public Radio (NPR), which
was set up in 1970 and began its national program service
in 1971 with "All Things Considered"
has become one of a number of organisations supplying programming
to public radio, a medium that as seen a dramatic increase
in listening in the US.
The addition of a community radio sector with Low Power FMs
in the US and Community Radio in the UK is also increasing
the scope of non-commercial stations but overall we would
argue that the UK approach has given much more real choice
and depth than has the commercial approach of the US. We'd
also argue that the nature of their broadcasting services
has also altered the nature of public discourse - maybe rancour
is currently a better word in the US for much of talk radio
- in the two countries.
The question now is whether technological developments have
changed the environment to the extent that public subsidy
of radio is no longer needed or desirable.
The effect of technological
Surely argue "free market " advocates
in the US - who presumably have forgotten the adage that there
is no such a thing as a "free lunch" - the development
of such technologies as the Internet and streaming audio,
of direct satellite radio services and potential further developments
of wireless technologies mean that there is now so much choice
available that there is no longer any justification for public
broadcasting: In the UK the arguments are less bluntly put
because the commercial companies, although they have been
meeting to prepare their lobbying in advance of the granting
of the BBC's next charter, know that they risk a strong backlash
if they overplay their hand and are also aware that much propaganda
against the BBC has resulted in the biter being bit in terms
of public opinion.
The failure of this argument in our view is that it totally
neglects the value of serendipitous expansion of horizons
and values only those things that people are aware of enough
to make a deliberate choice to obtain. It also proceeds from
an assumption of resources that cannot be taken for granted
- how many people who are having to rely on charity for food
can afford Sirius or XM for example
(The charity America's Second Harvest says it
feeds over 23 million hungry Americans each year).
This attitude we suggest produces a massive hidden cost to
a society from locking people into inadequate education and
knowledge and in the case of the US may yet see it "whupped"
in many areas by those much better educated in societies such
as China and India that value science and technological education
much more, even if they don't give rap that much importance.
We would certainly welcome the advances that satellite and
Internet distribution can bring, and would like to see them
available to the public in places such as libraries and schools
but don't see them as a replacement for a technology that
can for a few dollars supply an unending stream of information
as well as entertainment.]
Certainly we don't think that the public sector should be
trying to compete head on the CHR/POP or AC stations but we
do think that there is an overall benefit if some of the material
that is heard on the commercial airwaves is also available
in a different context - maybe next to other forms of music
or less popular work of the same genre - that may lead listeners
to expand rather than contract their horizons even if the
total audience is reduced.
In fact we'd argue that the technological advances mean that
a much better service can be made available to all the public
although it might dent some corporate profits along the way.
for the future.
What then do we think should be on offer from public broadcasting
for the future, specifically from radio, at what kind of cost,
and how far is there public support for continued support?
Here our view is firstly that public service radio should
be able to offer as wide or an even wider range of material
than it currently does with for the US more documentaries
and in-depth analysis than at present but without reducing
the current news and other output.
As far as cost is concerned the total per capita cost of subvention
to public broadcasting in the US for TV and radio is around
USD 1.30 a month and a CPB survey by GOP polling firm Tarrance
showed only one in ten of those polled thought this was too
much and 48% that it was too little: We'd suggest that if
satellite radio is worth USD 13 a month to those who can afford
it, it really wouldn't be unreasonable to significantly increase
the funding rather than reduce it.
In fact, given that nearly four-fifths of those polled thought
NPR programming was "fair and balanced" we'd have
thought this was not a difficult proposition for which to
gain support as far as radio is concerned, particularly if
emphasis if given to additional funding going towards improving
public radio's infrastructure as digital broadcasting is expanded
and also to supporting the 220 or so stations that specifically
serve rural and minority communities and aiding the growth
of low-power FMs.
We'd also suggest that satellite technology could easily be
used to widely expand the range of public radio's national
output - it really wouldn't be that difficult with modern
conditional access technology to sew up a deal with Sirius
and XM that put national public radio channels (not just of
NPR output but also including Public Radio International,
Minnesota Public Radio and other programming) on three or
four channels on each satellite service and made this available
without subscription charges to all.
The technology already exists since it is used for premium
channels on the satellite services and we can't see that the
satellite companies would have much to lose - they would certainly
have much to gain because people could easily try out the
full package and some might be tempted to take it - from such
Nor if the National Association of Broadcasters
(NAB) believes some of its own PR about the need for local
stations should it be that upset since the very nature of
such a service could be structured to ensure that it carried
no local services - these would remain with the terrestrial
output of public radio stations - and also, if there is subvention
from the public purse, no sponsorship messages never mind
In other words it wouldn't take any advertising/sponsorship
money away from commercial stations and as far as audiences
are concerned surely the NAB believes its members can compete.
We conclude therefore that technology can be used to expand
the range of public broadcasting and for comparatively small
amounts make it accessible to virtually everybody from a satellite
platform and that the overall benefits of having more output
available with a remit to educate and inform - and also in
the US to stick to a reasonably remit of "fairness and
accuracy" - as well as entertain would far outweigh the
We also believe that were the case to be put fairly it would
not be very difficult to gain public support albeit we rather
doubt that much fairness would come in discussing such an
idea from most conservative US talk hosts. What are they afraid
of? Maybe the very ideas of fairness and accuracy!