September 2001
Attack on the US

September 11

Having allowed a week to elapse since the tragedies of September 11, events which cut the US physically off from most of the world for days, we think it timely this month to consider the way the media including radio handled coverage of the events and also both their strengths and weaknesses. Every time we put our thoughts into order, something happened to change things and from one vantage point we can only offer a snapshot at best but here goes.

The first day.

First the events and immediate aftermath: Most American Broadcasters and many elsewhere in the world went into a special news mode, and most in the US dropped advertisements, something which in the case of radio may have been expensive but in sheer total was dwarfed by the hundreds of millions of dollars worth of losses incurred by the US TV networks.
At this stage many, both advertisers and broadcasters felt that adverts would be inappropriate (indeed some advertisers later complained about their adverts being run in pre-planned magazines. The result was a service in the US that, on an unprecedented level, was directed towards information and public service rather than profit. In addition, most radio and TV stations felt that this was not a time to lay blame but was rather one to dampen down the wilder rantings. It was an impressive reaction and will remain so.


Inevitably as thoughts began to move from covering the actual events to considering what could and should be done and analysing what might have led up to the events, the situation began to change.
Talk show hosts got back onto the air and it wasn't long before Howard Stern was advocating nuking Arab states and the Rev Jerry Falwell was blaming abortionists, gays and others for bringing down the wrath of God on the US.
A man who would fit well in the Taliban leadership one might think and an insult to any of the minorities he attacked who may have been among the victims. His apology later does not in our view count for all that much any more than would one from a radio host whose comments may have exacerbated the tensions that led to bigoted attacks on people who looked or spoke differently than their neighbours.
To kill a Sikh because of the events shows both gross ignorance and bigotry and a thoughtful look at the recent history of Afghanistan would be likely to persuade a rational person that an Afghan in the US is far more likely to be against the Taliban than the average American would have been before the attacks.

What is needed now.

To our mind what was is now needed is the calm importing of information and thoughtful comments on factors that might have contributed to such attacks and thus what might be done to prevent repetition; the problem here was that most US news organisations have dropped their foreign staffing and coverage down to minimal levels over the years: they just don't have the strengths to do the job as they might have done twenty years ago.
For all the boosterism of industry chiefs over strengths from industry consolidation, a look at many US newspapers of fifty years ago will show just how far the agenda has moved from a feeling that stories had to be covered because they were felt important to covering them because they would grab an audience.
The same has been true of the broadcasters! Does it matter is a reasonable question and were the US taking action unilaterally might be a debateable point but if a coalition is to be built then it does.
To try and conduct effective multilateral action whilst remaining tied to a domestic agenda built on ignorance is not an easy task and one not helped if the culture of the talk show hosts remains dependant upon being "entertaining" or "outrageous" to gain their audience. Broadcasters, both radio and television, we fear are in for a testing time.

A chance for satellite radio .

Television will still play the larger role in covering forthcoming events but it seems to us that radio could be very well placed to complement that service. In particular, US satellite radio companies have a chance to put together a strong service without the same massive costs that television will face and, for the first time for many years, effectively provide a common service over the whole of the US.
They will have the channels to provide not only continuing news cover but versions of that including existing US channels such as CNN and whatever NPR can put together plus international ones such as the BBC World Service; We'd even suggest that in this case a feed of Radio Moscow's English language service would be of great value to those in the US public who want to gain an alternative view.
What will happen and the time scale we do not know but if ever there was a time when satellite radio could perform a valuable service as well as helping itself, this seems it!
To have a national radio service in such times seems to us of tremendous potential value; this does not devalue the worth of news feeds on existing terrestrial channels but it would certainly be a tremendous addition to their output.

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.

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