January 2003
Our hopes for 2003

Balance, progress and technology:

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 the UK.

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 the latter.

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 Communications Commission.

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 their broadcasters.

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.

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