June 2005

Why we need public broadcasting.

Why we need public broadcasting.

Three years ago when we last commented in favour of public broadcasting (See RNW Comment Jul 2002) we wrote mainly in a context of threats to the BBC, which the opposition British Conservative Party was talking of slimming down - hiving off the two of its most popular radio channels that compete most with the commercial sector, BBC Radio 1 and Radio 2.

We revisit the topic in a context where the main threats we perceive to public broadcasting come from politicians eager to escape proper public scrutiny, both in the UK and the US although the fact that commercial broadcasters are likely to benefit financially from a weaker public sector almost certainly means they are likely to keep putting on pressure as well in various ways - and indeed are still playing the Radio1 and 2 record in the UK.

So the first issue is whether we need public broadcasting, which we think we do, followed by the issues of how technological development has changed the situation, what public broadcasting's remit should be and, allied with this, the fairest context in which to evaluate the support it should be given.

The roots of public broadcasting.

In looking at the roots from which public broadcasting sprang we will concentrate on the divergence between the two prime English-language countries at the time when radio began - the UK and the US, which took different paths in the 1920s, the UK going for a state corporation and the US for a commercial industry.

In considering why the UK took the route it did we note that long before broadcasting pretty well all societies had moved to ensure that some things were government controlled - armies being a prime example - and other institutions had grown up that were distinct from the state - religions being a prime example albeit in some societies they often retained massive power and could frequently veto moves by governments.

Following the industrial revolution, the institutions that had been satisfactory for societies based on farming and small-scale manufacturing became inadequate for many requirements and various societies began to move towards provision of public services on various scales.

There introductions did not spring from some mad left-wing ideology but from the needs of society itself - for better educated people to serve the requirements of the society and industry that led to public schools (the American usage not the British perversion of the word); for provision of services that were perceived as natural monopolies such as gas and water utilities that the British Midland industrialist Joseph Chamberlain - no "pinko" he - persuaded the city of Birmingham to purchase. Chamberlain was also behind the 1875 Artisans Dwelling Act that allowed corporations to purchase slum property for the purpose of clearance and thus to redevelop the city.

Other public sector developments included the creation of national postal services and the British government took control of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (which became British Petroleum) in 1911 on behalf of the Royal Navy at the behest of Winston Churchill, then head of the British Admiralty (State accident and health insurance plus pensions we would note were first introduced by Otto von Bismarck - a conservative if ever there was one).

Thus when broadcasting became possible there was in Europe a tradition of public services and corporations that had been introduced in response to particular situations, to head off political protests, serve for development, or aid government power and control: Out of that context and Victorian high-mindedness that, felt that chances had to be given through public libraries, museums and so on for the poor should have a chance to educate themselves out of poverty, sprang the world's first public broadcaster, the British Broadcasting Corporation which was formed in 1927 as a monopoly based on its predecessor the British Broadcasting Company that had been set up by manufacturers in 1922 to promote demand for their wares.

This beginning, which was widely followed, generally led to broadcasters that did not carry advertising, had lofty remits but were often very much under the thumbs of governments: In the US, development came via the commercial route - and started off in wireless telegraphy days with what could be thought of as similar to the early boom - with many companies selling stock as vastly inflated prices based on visions of vast - and non-existent- profits.

In the early days US radio was also commercial free and it was not until 1922 that AT&T began promoting the idea of using advertising programming - it initially claimed its patents gave it a monopoly over radio advertising - and paved the way for the development of US commercial radio.

In regulatory terms the 1934 US Communications Act ratified the existing commercial structure and there was no fundamental debate over the next 60 years until the 1996 Telecommunications Act that many regard as going even further in giving the big corporations most of what they wanted.

In the UK there was no advertising- funded radio until 1973 when franchised advertised following the passage of the 1972 Sound Broadcasting Act had been granted and even the commercial lobby failed to get what it really wanted, an easy and cheap to operate national pop station that would follow in the wake of the pirate stations and they anticipated would be hugely profitable; instead they had to provide public service radio funded by advertising.

The results of different approaches in the UK and USA

The result of the regulatory regimes in the UK and USA it would be fair to say was that with notable exceptions UK broadcasting was heavily skewed towards the uplifting and what could be termed "establishment" values whereas that in the US the skew was towards entertainment.

The prime effects of this we would argue was that in the UK the main audience "deprivation" before commercial radio was introduced was of pop music partly ameliorated by listening to Radio Luxembourg on AM and later by the pirate stations before BBC Radio 1 was launched. The system was also more "general" rather than being one of tight formats.

In the US, apart from the fact that commercial imperatives meant that rural areas were comparatively under-served, we would argue the result was that for most of the country there came to be virtually no radio drama or current affairs, comparatively little news cover in depth although plenty of headlines, and not that much classical music, educative or for that matter really informative programming.

The main emphasis was of course on shortcomings in TV and when Public Broadcasting was approved in 1967, primarily as a means to set up a national non-commercial television system radio was virtually ignored - it was added to the legislation at the last minute after a determined campaign by a few enthusiasts from educational radio (RNW note: For further details and quite a good yarn see Listener Supported: The Culture and History of Public Radio, by Jack W. Mitchell. There is also an article by Mitchell about the fight to get radio into what was to have been the Public Television Act (it became the Public Broadcastings Act) - and the Corporation for Public Television ( It became the Corporation for Public Broadcasting- CPB) - in Current Magazine this month.).

Since then National Public Radio (NPR), which was set up in 1970 and began its national program service in 1971 with "All Things Considered" has become one of a number of organisations supplying programming to public radio, a medium that as seen a dramatic increase in listening in the US.

The addition of a community radio sector with Low Power FMs in the US and Community Radio in the UK is also increasing the scope of non-commercial stations but overall we would argue that the UK approach has given much more real choice and depth than has the commercial approach of the US. We'd also argue that the nature of their broadcasting services has also altered the nature of public discourse - maybe rancour is currently a better word in the US for much of talk radio - in the two countries.

The question now is whether technological developments have changed the environment to the extent that public subsidy of radio is no longer needed or desirable.

The effect of technological advance.

Surely argue "free market " advocates in the US - who presumably have forgotten the adage that there is no such a thing as a "free lunch" - the development of such technologies as the Internet and streaming audio, of direct satellite radio services and potential further developments of wireless technologies mean that there is now so much choice available that there is no longer any justification for public broadcasting: In the UK the arguments are less bluntly put because the commercial companies, although they have been meeting to prepare their lobbying in advance of the granting of the BBC's next charter, know that they risk a strong backlash if they overplay their hand and are also aware that much propaganda against the BBC has resulted in the biter being bit in terms of public opinion.

The failure of this argument in our view is that it totally neglects the value of serendipitous expansion of horizons and values only those things that people are aware of enough to make a deliberate choice to obtain. It also proceeds from an assumption of resources that cannot be taken for granted - how many people who are having to rely on charity for food can afford Sirius or XM for example (The charity America's Second Harvest says it feeds over 23 million hungry Americans each year).

This attitude we suggest produces a massive hidden cost to a society from locking people into inadequate education and knowledge and in the case of the US may yet see it "whupped" in many areas by those much better educated in societies such as China and India that value science and technological education much more, even if they don't give rap that much importance.

We would certainly welcome the advances that satellite and Internet distribution can bring, and would like to see them available to the public in places such as libraries and schools but don't see them as a replacement for a technology that can for a few dollars supply an unending stream of information as well as entertainment.]

Certainly we don't think that the public sector should be trying to compete head on the CHR/POP or AC stations but we do think that there is an overall benefit if some of the material that is heard on the commercial airwaves is also available in a different context - maybe next to other forms of music or less popular work of the same genre - that may lead listeners to expand rather than contract their horizons even if the total audience is reduced.

In fact we'd argue that the technological advances mean that a much better service can be made available to all the public although it might dent some corporate profits along the way.

Public broadcasting for the future.

What then do we think should be on offer from public broadcasting for the future, specifically from radio, at what kind of cost, and how far is there public support for continued support?

Here our view is firstly that public service radio should be able to offer as wide or an even wider range of material than it currently does with for the US more documentaries and in-depth analysis than at present but without reducing the current news and other output.

As far as cost is concerned the total per capita cost of subvention to public broadcasting in the US for TV and radio is around USD 1.30 a month and a CPB survey by GOP polling firm Tarrance showed only one in ten of those polled thought this was too much and 48% that it was too little: We'd suggest that if satellite radio is worth USD 13 a month to those who can afford it, it really wouldn't be unreasonable to significantly increase the funding rather than reduce it.

In fact, given that nearly four-fifths of those polled thought NPR programming was "fair and balanced" we'd have thought this was not a difficult proposition for which to gain support as far as radio is concerned, particularly if emphasis if given to additional funding going towards improving public radio's infrastructure as digital broadcasting is expanded and also to supporting the 220 or so stations that specifically serve rural and minority communities and aiding the growth of low-power FMs.

We'd also suggest that satellite technology could easily be used to widely expand the range of public radio's national output - it really wouldn't be that difficult with modern conditional access technology to sew up a deal with Sirius and XM that put national public radio channels (not just of NPR output but also including Public Radio International, Minnesota Public Radio and other programming) on three or four channels on each satellite service and made this available without subscription charges to all.

The technology already exists since it is used for premium channels on the satellite services and we can't see that the satellite companies would have much to lose - they would certainly have much to gain because people could easily try out the full package and some might be tempted to take it - from such a service.

Nor if the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) believes some of its own PR about the need for local stations should it be that upset since the very nature of such a service could be structured to ensure that it carried no local services - these would remain with the terrestrial output of public radio stations - and also, if there is subvention from the public purse, no sponsorship messages never mind adverts.

In other words it wouldn't take any advertising/sponsorship money away from commercial stations and as far as audiences are concerned surely the NAB believes its members can compete.

We conclude therefore that technology can be used to expand the range of public broadcasting and for comparatively small amounts make it accessible to virtually everybody from a satellite platform and that the overall benefits of having more output available with a remit to educate and inform - and also in the US to stick to a reasonably remit of "fairness and accuracy" - as well as entertain would far outweigh the additional costs.

We also believe that were the case to be put fairly it would not be very difficult to gain public support albeit we rather doubt that much fairness would come in discussing such an idea from most conservative US talk hosts. What are they afraid of? Maybe the very ideas of fairness and accuracy!

What you think? Please E-mail your comments.

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