December 2003

Our wish list for 2004.

Our wish list for 2004.

So much has happened technologically over the past two years that we thought this month it was timely to think again on what we'd like to happen in the world of radio next year. In essence the wish list is the same as two years ago - more choice and better quality - but this year we'd also like to enter a plea for a little more responsibility in some areas but not for an easy life as we'd like a little mroe cage rattling and querying of the status quo as well.

More choice.

In some ways technology is already bringing this with the growth of broadband that makes listening to audio on the Internet a practicable proposition rather than one subject to the vagaries of dial-up, the growth of satellite radio in the US enhancing choice for Americans and probably soon for Canadians, and the growth of digital radio round the world beginning to enhance choice in some areas as well as increasing technical quality.

In particular we welcome the growth in availability of on-demand audio on the Internet with particular praise here for the BBC but also for a number of other broadcasters although the best effort does seem to come in general from public broadcasters, probably because the advertising-funded model still seems to be having trouble financing streams for commercial broadcasters, even when there aren't issues of paying extra royalties for streaming songs.

We also welcome the extra programming available in some countries because of the way in which digital radio has been introduced; we don't value the add-ons that sometimes come with such services to anything like the extent we value the availability of extra channels when the regulatory system licences extra digital spectrum for DAB broadcasts as in the UK rather than adding digital capability for broadcasting existing signals as in North America so far.

More responsibility.

Our views in this area have been coloured significantly over the past few weeks by a number of stories we have reported or noted.

First comes a plea for more responsibility in fact checking before mouth opening. Like the next plea, the spur for this illustrates the degree to which US media's sense of responsibility seems to be linked to the activism of groups that might be offended rather than any real moral sense.
The plea was particularly spurred by a Rush Limbaugh comment on the massacres in Rwanda and the decision of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda to jail three Rwandan media executives for genocide, incitement to genocide, conspiracy, and crimes against humanity, extermination and persecution because their complicity in the use of media to incite and carry out a genocidal campaign in 1994 that led to the deaths of around 800,000 Rwandans.

Elsewhere there were some reasoned expressions of concern about the way the ruling could be used by some governments to repress journalistic freedom; Limbaugh in contrast summarized the issue as "hateful words are now a war crime according to the United Nations" -and then went on to compare the situation in Rwanda to "hate speech against President Bush emanating from the mouths of Democrats today".
He also became blustered and irritated when a caller said that Limbaugh misstated what had happened and made his point more clear and said he was trying to "make a joke about if the UN is going to get on hate speech in Rwanda what will they do about to the hate-Bush speech in this country."

The facts are that radio in Rwanda not only urged the "extermination" of Tutsis and said they should be swept from the country but also gave locations where Tutsis and called for named individuals to be pursued and killed. He even half-ducked a suggestion that for a Democratic station to call for all those with a Republican flag on polling day to be killed would be a crime.

On that basis the fact that Limbaugh reacted as he did and then had the gall later to say that the caller "passed the test. You made the host look good" makes him ignorant, stupid or a morally degenerate bigot or all of them and not much can be said for the stations who carried his outburst without any additional comment: To put things in perspective the Rwandan death toll was around a tenth of the population and a proportionate number of dead in the US would be around 30 million but some two-thirds of European Jews perished during the Holocaust. We think it reasonable to ask what would have been the reaction to the Limbaugh comparison had incitement led to the deaths of just 3000 Americans (the 9-11 death toll was below this according to latest estimates).

Secondly a plea for some more sensitivity and effort to understand cultural differences when commenting on matters alien or strange to the commentator: This plea was spurred in particular by comments on Islam made by Dr Laura Schlessinger (See RNW Nov 22) and Paul Harvey (See RNW Dec 7).

In the latter case there would seem to plenty of justification for comments made on cockfighting and indeed on Iraqi culture in the context but the comment on Islam was particularly ill-directed and would have led to a much greater outcry had it been made about various other religions. Maybe a case of insult through ignorance?

Thirdly a similar plea in terms of some of what most Americans would consider excesses by various US hosts, spurred by in particular the comments on the Deminski and Doyle show (See RNW Dec 9); in contrast to this, the actual content of the infamous Opie and Anthony Sex in St Patrick's Cathedral stunt that led to much heavier fines overall (because of syndication- see RNW Oct 3) and the ending of the show was rather mild.

All the cases, however, indicate a need for some of the broadcasters involved to gain a better feeling of the sensitivities of the public out there listening to broadcasts on leased public airwaves; were they on subscription services or the Internet where a more conscious decision has to be made to listen the situation would be different.

More cage-rattling.

Despite all the above, we don't want timid radio, constructed on the basis of minimizing offence to any person or group. We'd actually like to see more robust discussion but with the added strength of a firmer factual foundation.

In fact we'd like to see rather more discussion in the sense of dialogue on the airwaves almost anywhere; there is a place for the ranting and monologues -probably better in a comedy sketch in our view than on a talk show - but feeding closed minds with confirmation of prejudices is not our idea of value in radio and too many talk shows and phone-ins seem to us far too based on iteration of prejudice than on examination of issues.

The latter to us need not make for dull radio as clashes of ideas can be lively and illuminating without being rude or rancorous but we do accept that making such dialogue interesting and keeping it grounded on fact is likely to be more demanding and expensive than the simpler process of a host appealing to a particular group and, even more to the point, may be regrettably less appealing to the narrow demographics often favoured by advertisers.

In that frame of mind, we welcome the idea of a "liberal" talk network in the US; if properly constructed it will be of value even if its appeal is limited. If on the other hand it just becomes an outlet for anti-Republican motormouths, whatever the commercial success, it won't introduce that much extra choice.

Equipment compatibility.

And finally, while on the issue of quality, we are now convinced of the technical practicability and superiority of digital transmissions but would like to see more of the vaunted "convergence" by having more equipment compatibility; We certainly retain our previous view that without a universal world wide digital system we wouldn't like to see AM and FM wither away.

So how about some bright spark coming up with suitable electronics reasonably priced to allow a single set to receive all the systems in use: If cellphones can take and transmit stills this shouldn't be an impossible task and indeed the receiver could even be a cellphone as well with the capability to listen to wireless Internet transmissions as well. Then all it has to do is dock with a satellite dish and into an automobile docking station, link with a computer or MP3 equipment for recording signals…………….

What you think? Please E-mail your comments.

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