December 2004

Highlights, lowlights, high life, low life, and trends of 2004.

Highlights, lowlights, high life, low life, and trends of 2004.

To end the year this month we have opted to look at the past year, which has seen very significant movement in terms of both the technological and political developments that have affected radio as a medium and a business and also in terms of our own views of the highlights - and lowlights- of the year.

Most of the developments have been in train for a while but are now coming to fruition: As for the assessment of the ups and downs, they are our own with which you are welcome to disagree.

Technological cum business developments.

In this area we highlight two movements that we suspect may yet come to be indissolubly linked, although a few years ago this would not have been our assessment.

They are the growth in satellite radio and the pressures on terrestrial broadcasters that have led to much political brouhaha, much increased indecency fines in the US, and the move to satellite by such figures as Bob Edwards, Opie and Anthony, and Howard Stern.

The latter's move is by far the most significant in perceived impact but the very fact that others are treading the same path bodes well for satellite and potentially very much the opposite for US terrestrial broadcasters, many of whom in our view are being dangerously complacent. We also suspect that Mel Karmazin worked out his figures pretty well before moving to Sirius, not because on paper his share options are currently showing such a massive profit (that is after all on paper and we have not changed our view that satellite stocks are overpriced) but because we consider him a very shrewd financial operator and we doubt he'd have jumped to a perceived failure even if the pay was good.

The converse is of course true, in estimating the future for terrestrial radio. We don't think it's by any means dead or dying but we'd certainly not be buying any stock at the moment (apart maybe of a takeover target for a short-term gain): We just can't see how in the medium to long term their current valuations are way above the returns that are likely as they have to fight of the threat of satellite with sufficiently attractive programming - read more local content from local staff as the way in which they can best differentiate their output - and also have to face up to the fact that they've already overdone it in taking too much of their airtime with adverts and probably with syndication and voice tracking.

One exception could be Air America, which seems to have got its act together rather belatedly and in our view has plenty of headroom for growth - as does satellite radio in the US - but hasn't had quite the same degree of expectation placed on it.

And then there's digital radio and the Internet: As broadband passed some crucial psychological barriers and take up proceeds apace, listening online has also increased in leaps and bounds and in the UK at least DAB seems to have now also passed crucial barriers and is on its way to being part of the mainstream aided in this case by big brother TV since much digital radio listening in from digital TV platforms.

Some Ups.

In the ups, not in order of importance we'd include:

* The growth of satellite radio in the US where it now has 3 million plus subscribers.

* The growth of digital audio broadcasting in the UK where receiver sales are finally taking off and moving into the millions.

*The growth of online on-demand services, which are, regrettably in our view, still fairly uncommon from commercial broadcasters but are being widely provided by public broadcasters.

* A final realisation as evinced by Clear Channel's "Less is More" policy change that you can overdo the adverts. Probably too little and too late but still welcome

*The International Telecommunication Union vote to update the 160-year-old Morse Code and add the characters A and C run together (.--.-.) to denote the "@" symbol used in e-mail addresses. We appreciated the bulletin board response aimed to show those who said using "at" would suffice: Quick, what's my email address?
And also the response to the person who commented," And it is absolutely true, that AT or didah dah, makes more practical sense, than sending didahdahdidahdit"…. "didahdidah is the letter "ä" in Swedish, Danish and Finnish: dihdahdahdidah is the letter "å" in Swedish and Danish: and dahdahdahdit is the letter "ö" in Swedish, Danish, Norwegian and Finnish[RNW apologies to those of you who don't have international symbols enabled to read the above].

Some downs.

*A swing from the permissive to the over censorious by the US over "broadcast indecency" to the extent that the Federal Communications Commissioners have over-ruled the agency's published guidelines.

*The continuing decline in international radio services - the year saw Swiss Radio International cease broadcasts, Radio Vlaanderen Internationaal in Brussels announce that it is to close its foreign language radio broadcasts and most of its Dutch output at the end of March 2005 and Prasar Bharati - parent organization of All India Radio - say it is considering pulling the plug on its External Services Division: In addition the Voice of America announced the end of regular programmes in Bulgarian, Estonian, Czech, Hungarian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Polish, Romanian, Slovak and Slovenian, and made substantial cuts to its English output and BBC World Service cut its short wave transmissions to the US, opting to rely instead on the Internet plus local FM services.

*The resignations of the BBC chairman and Director General in the wake of a report alleging that the British government had "sexed-up" information on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. The year illustrated the power of politicians in power to escape the consequences of getting things wrong, misleading the public or being incompetent whilst some of the broadcasters at least had to bite the bullet.

*The loss of some great broadcasters including Walter "Salty" Brine, David Brudnoy, Alistair Cooke, John Dunn, John A. Gambling, Scott Muni, John Peel and Bill Randle.

High Life.

We opted here for the late Boston talk host David Brudnoy on the strength of not just his long record but also a dignified and humorous last interview just before he died (See RNW Dec 12). A man who emanated decency and respect for others!

Low Life.

We found it hard to choose between three US hosts - Don Imus, Rush Limbaugh, and Michael Savage:

*Imus for the two comments he was reported as making "I'm sorry for referring to them as a bunch of thieving Jews...I know that's redundant" - referring to Simon & Schuster publishers and during Yasser Arafat's funeral "They're [Palestinians] eating dirt and that fat pig wife [Suha Arafat] of his is living in Paris." And tacit approval of the subsequent comment by his sports anchor Sid Rosenberg "They're all brainwashed, though. That's what it is. And they're stupid to begin with, but they're brainwashed now. Stinking animals. They ought to drop the bomb right there, kill 'em all right now."

*Rush Limbaugh - on the treatment of prisoners in Abu Ghraib, "I'm talking about people having a good time, these people, you ever heard of emotional release? You ever heard of need to blow some steam off?"

*Michael Savage - in relation to the treatment of prisoners in Abu Ghraib, "And I think there should be no mercy shown to these sub-humans. I believe that a thousand of them should be killed tomorrow. I think a thousand of them held in the Iraqi prison should be given 24 hour -- a trial and executed. I think they need to be shown that we are not going to roll over to them."
In the end, if half of the allegations made by Imus's ex-nanny about the way in which she was fired (See RNW Dec 2 Imus1) are true, we have to give him the award.

RNW note: It was interesting to compare the reaction in the US to the above - all still successful - and that of the Hungarians after the comments made on Christmas Eve last year by drunken broadcaster Zoltán Bajtai who said, "I would exterminate all Christians." His station, Tilos Radio, whose board had fired Bajtai and apologized, was nevertheless taken off the air for a month by the country's regulator. Hungary we felt was harsh but we leave it to American "values" holders as to which nation has the more praiseworthy values.

And finally a question. tlhIngan Hol Dajatlh'a' ? If so try the oddball international broadcaster story of the year in the addition by German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle of Klingon pages to its website to mark its 10th anniversary.

What you think? Please E-mail your comments.

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