August 2005

Could making choices too easy lead to narrower minds?

Could making choices too easy lead to narrower minds?

On the surface the more choices there are there should be a broadening of experiences rather than a narrowing but counter-intuitively technology that offers the opportunity to pre-determine choices could in our view very easily lead to the opposite: If nothing else, some research seems to indicate that people, when choices expand beyond a certain level, take the rational decision to stick with choosing what they know rather than spend time evaluating all options. In other words the extra choice is actually a delusion in many ways.

For radio listening the past, the choice was not so great as to make this a serious factor in the way the medium progressed although in the US commercial pressures tended to lead to a bunching effect of competition in formats where there was a large audience and comparatively little choice when it came to the less popular.

The development of the Internet has however changed the situation considerably and allied with other technologies meant that it is possible to narrow down much further into niche territory.

This raises the question of the eventual effect of choosing just what is wanted - be it information to suit prejudices not just interests and exclude the contrary, or just one kind of music to the detriment of all others and potential concern about where this will lead.

It also raises the question as the effect may be on radio broadcasting, be it terrestrial or satellite, of other means of delivering audio that are becoming more readily accessible but offer narrower forms of delivery (such as the Internet where adding another listener means taking up more resources). Our concern here is that a fairly small loss of audience can potentially have a significant effect on a terrestrial broadcaster's choices.

Laziness to the rescue

In a tremendous irony, laziness may yet be one of the most potent forces counter-acting the capabilities that technology is providing to narrow down as well as expand audio choices.

We noted that one of the reasons for choosing radio given in a Carnegie-Mellon project was "Doesn't require much thought" and a "negative" aspect for being a DJ was "Music selection takes time" (Roadcasting Story Aug 29) but running against this is the development of technology to automate the selection process.

This we see as something that on the surface seems a welcome development but one that could lead to people letting the system do the work and never broadening their horizons: There is also the concern that finding something in one genre that satisfies may lead to less attention being paid to other areas - the recent Jack format survey by Bridge ratings contained the following comment: "The lack of lifestyle information such as news, sports or weather is not a detriment to this format's appeal. In fact, that this type of information is not included in the presentation gets a higher score than the perception of fewer commercials is a revealing element of JACK's appeal."

As so often this raises further questions - is this because when listening to music the Jack audience don't want to be interrupted by information or is it that the Jack audience prefers to go elsewhere for information or is it that the Jack audience are generally an ignorant bunch?

Jack it would seem is a fairly good test bed for considering some of the issues we have raised. It narrows down only to a degree in musical terms and does provide a wider range than many formats and it makes the job of selecting how to receive music quite easy - just turn it on.

It is also less likely to be affected by Internet choices since those who want to use technology to narrow down their selection to a very limited area in all probability wouldn't listen to it in the first place or would use it as an easy tool go find out what else is out there.

Despite this, people have only limited time to listen -even if audio does have the advantage that listening can be done whilst doing other things -driving, working, on the Internet etc - and where a station is struggling losing even a fairly small portion of the audience and related income can have a severe effect.

The wider effects.

If we assume that the Internet and podcasting have the potential to take away 5-10% of listening and satellite radio the same in the US, it is easy to see that the effect on terrestrial radio could be severe, particularly the advertising-funded model since US audiences have already shown they've become tired of too many adverts leading Clear Channel to is "less is more" policy that so seems to have increased listening because of the reduction in adverts but has also cut into revenues.

The new choices are also leading to pressures on public broadcasters with their existence and the effect it has had on listening share being argued by many as a reason to cut the BBC licence fee in the UK and government subvention to public broadcasting in general.
And in an even wider context than that of the broadcasting business, it seems to us that already there is far too much of the "converted preaching to the converted" and "faith-based decision making" in the modern world particularly in the US and that anything that can make it easier for people to confirm their prejudices is detrimental to the wider good.

That area should to us be of far more concern than the mere fate of radio or broadcasting and the best antidote to ignorant decisions in our view is greater knowledge: ideally we'd like to see people make the effort to expand horizons and examine other viewpoints without needing pressure or help but the evidence is that many won't.

We therefore think that societies can reasonably and sensibly take decisions in some areas to aid this process: Part is education - nobody with a half-decent scientific education applying scientific methods of testing could in our view, for example, consider Intelligent design in the same realm as Darwinian evolution - it's more like a belief in a flat earth or fairies because it meets a human need.

Equally had people been exposed to a half-decent education about economics or the history and development of the Middle East, there would be few surprises about anything that has happened to oil prices or in Iraq since most of what has happened could easily be deduced - and was by some: indeed in of all places we hear on recently in the Steel on Steel show an exposition on oil prices and problems that may have been paranoid in some places and exaggerated in others but certainly had many of the basics correct.

What can be done.

In our view this is an area where the marketplace is not the answer to end all answers anymore than it is in assessing drug safety and that societies have to face up to the implications of handing the effects of new technology and either regulating it - pretty well impossible in this case - or ameliorating the effect where necessary by other means.

The other means in this case can only be to provide options that make it easier for broader-based media to survive and that will involve costs: In our view if society to protect copyright holders who seem to have done a pretty good job of lobbying (bribing?) to ameliorate the effects of recording technology it should be able to do the same to protect vital sources of information required for a properly functioning democracy.

Most of that should start in the schools in our view but for its continuation there needs to be readily - and cheaply or freely - available choices of information. One way is proper support of public broadcasting following debate over what its function should be - fairly successful in some societies, much less so in others - and another could well be a tilting of the playing field to add costs to newer technologies and lower them for others.

We see no reason, for example, why, if libraries are to be required to pay copyright fees related to books they have bought and then lent out (money from the public purse to the private), why the same principle should not apply in terms of some additional taxes from commercial sources being used to promote areas considered of public benefit.

We recognise that this will inevitably lead to self-interested whining from some, principled pro-market (but in our view ill-thought out) opposition from others, and will be difficult to implement without risk of corruption in more than one sense of the word.
At the same time this is no different in principle to governments paying to advertise on commercial broadcasters and there seems to us to be no good reason why local communities should not vote to devote some of their resources to support of programming rather than just adverts and insist on conditions to go along with this.

In the US it could be done partly by expanding low power FM, which would require people to tell politicians that if the NAB cannot put up good scientific evidence in terms of interference it's lobbying will be treated as the junk it largely is (We would suggest that the easiest way out of any potential impasse on this is a government-sponsored insurance funds that would recompense those that set up LPFMs in what we anticipate would be a small number of cases that there really was objectionable interference and they had to close down and would further suggest that a programme of test introductions in selected areas would quickly provide evidence as to the real likely risks).

The other way is by specific sponsorship of commercial station programmes so as to ensure that local issues are aired properly: This should not be that difficult as it is really no more the service already offered by stations that broker time but it would need proper discussion of conditions to maintain standards and protect both the station and the community.

What you think? Please E-mail your comments.

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