June 2000
Audio, adverts and public service

Adverts everywhere

This comment was in part spurred by fruit and vegetables. It started with a sticky label on an avocado, which led me to note another on a banana and the printed wrapping on a cucumber. My adverts were supplier labels but they might well have been other adverts; the Ask Jeeves search engine has placed on some 100 million bananas in the US adverts saying, "When is a banana ripe? Ask Jeeves!" No great shakes in food terms since the outer covering of none is eaten but on an apple it starts getting different unless as a way of forcing the eater to wash the fruit. Indeed once you start noticing, adverts are everywhere. The link with radio --well I suspect there are executives out there who would like to feed a diet of all adverts and I like to choose different radio and audio to suit me. And at times I'd like to listen to it uninterrupted by a sales pitch just as I like the freedom to see fruit as something natural not a way of selling me something or even telling me where it came from.
Does it matter?
I think it does, just as it matters when a nation's broadcast media aren't prepared to give adequate coverage to issues which may not attract the largest possible audience but are nevertheless boring. So on this one I'm with Commissioner Gloria Tristani of the US Federal Communications Commission (RNW June 23 ). She suggests that public service activities are part of the quid-pro-quo broadcasters have to pay for access to public spectrum. In general terms we'd go further, say there are no free lunches, and suggest sensible debate in general about the price paid when advertising funds services because there always is one. The question is whether it's fair or exorbitant in terms of side-effects.
Public service and commercial radio?
In the UK we consider people to be fortunate. The public funding of the BBC (and yes the licence fee is really a kind of tax since it is involuntary) means that people here gain access to broadcasts less interrupted by adverts and jingle which is a benefit, a great benefit in the case of a live classical music concert for example. However technology does change things --the remote control enables channel-hopping on radio and TV which would not have happened when people had to walk across a room to re-tune. It therefore throws some of the old rules out. It doesn't throw out the idea of fairness, of diversity and indeed of honest political debate in a democracy. And at the moment a mix of licence fee and advertisement-funded broadcasting seems to have greater overall strengths than either side alone.
But what about the Internet?

US orchestras recognised the changes Internet technology is bringing when they recently accented the idea of putting out classical music on the Internet rather than relying on recording companies. And if micropayment systems combined with a way of finding channels (you need to be able to get to them to make them of value) do develop it may well be that the Internet could lead to a true flowering of diversity. That way I can choose to a degree about the adverts. Perhaps for prerecorded material one could accent two rates --one with no adverts or one just at the top and tail and a lower one for listening to the salesmen. At the moment, however, this choice doesn't exist.
So can we stick with the status quo?

The answer here is clearly "No" but and there are plenty of commercial interests about who'd like to put the boot totally into public service broadcasting and we do no favours to anyone by not recognising this.
We also have to recognise that they're not all particularly committed to presenting all sides of an argument since in the end they got where they were in the main through personal drives that were often downright hostile to things which stood in their way. At the same time those drives may be opening new areas of opportunity if we choose to have a reasoned debate about both rights and responsibilities.
What should we do?

On the personal level we'd suggest two fairly straightforward approaches. First think about the implications of judging everything by monetary values. If you wouldn't actually sell your mother or grandmother , then you accept that other values count .In broadcast terms thing of what you would call fair dealing and complain when it isn't what you're getting. And one of the most important of these is the availability of accurate information. If all you get in information on goods or in political terms is one-sided comment either in advertisements or interviews, every so often write and make it clear the result has been negative (E-mail is a useful technological advance here). With goods you needn't buy, with politicians you can change your vote but any such decision has a lot more effect if you're prepared to let people or companies know that's what you've done. And on the positive side, support those who do go to more trouble to be fair ad let them know. Collectively you already change the airwave mix through the on and off switch but with more effort to give feedback you might get a better result. Never forget that those who stand to make money from something always have an incentive to pitch their point of view.

May 2000 July 2000

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