We would contend that for some areas the market
is, or can be, just as dangerous for a democracy as totalitarian
political control; in others that it can disguise the limitations
of choice being offered; and in others that the interests
of big businesses can easily work against the interests of
citizens just as much as those of big government.
Let us consider a few areas that affect radio:
* In terms of music, a recording company will only make a
good return on its investment if a record sells in large numbers
and a music-format commercial station needs to attract a large
enough audience segment to be profitable.
*Equally in some areas of entertainment the high costs of
making programmes, even if they are popular, militates against
the success of various genres. Drama, for example, is expensive
to produce and the audience for it has largely moved from
radio to TV in the US, largely we suggest not because there
isn't an audience but because the profit margin isn't enough.
*In terms of news, covering a story properly is fairly expensive
whilst reading or packaging agency information is comparatively
cheap: It's noticeable how many US news radio stations have
fairly small reporting staffs and largely relay on packaging
material from other sources. There's also a question of how
far a large advertiser can influence what is or isn't covered,
whatever may be said of editorial independence.
*And of course in terms of finance, he who pays the piper
calls the tune meaning that as long as advertisers want a
younger and reasonably affluent target audience, commercial
radio stations are going to be skewed away from the "less
Then comes the clincher for many people - you have to pay
one way or the other and there is no choice for terrestrial
radio listeners in the commercial sector about the way you
pay, namely having to accept adverts whether or not they disrupt
the programming or determine its nature - how, for example,
could you transmit a live classical concert and include commercials
without destroying the performance? For the two subscription
satellite channels the choice to pay is very often making
the choice to avoid the adverts but these latter have been
constrained - and NAB (National Association of Broadcasters)
lobbying intends that they should remain constrained - so
as to exclude them from local programming, not just local
Whilst we think a well-funded public
broadcaster such as the BBC can in general offer a wider range
- certainly when it comes to radio the BBC does in our view
reach many places where UK commercial radio doesn't tread
- it isn't all a one-way street.
In any case where government can control or limit funding
there is a well-founded concern that this will lead to government
pressures to meet its agenda rather than one chosen by the
broadcaster. The pressures are different to those from advertisers
but real nevertheless and often very difficult to resist,
even if just on the basis of being worn down by having to
answer many complaints that commercial broadcasts can often
ignore from politicians (well at least they can unless particular
legislation they want passing or defeating is on the horizon,
in which case we suspect spines are likely to become more
supple than stiff).
Within this area we would include pressures to limit or skew
news and current affairs coverage, to limit remits so as to
exclude areas that the commercial sector thinks will be more
profitable for itself should public broadcaster competition
be excluded, and to come down harder on a public broadcaster
than a commercial one when an issue is controversial, thus
tending to keep the broadcaster away from investigating such
issues, however much they may be in the public interest.
In other cases, of course, the government simply controls
but often in those countries it also attempts to control all
media and information it dislikes - and commercial media (think
China) go along for the sake of continued existence.
The benefits of
having both public and private broadcasters.
We would argue that the very existence
of a competing sector is beneficial. In the US the launch
of satellite radio has in our view been a plus for those who
do not subscribe in that it has forced some change on existing
broadcasters but public broadcasting has been fairly limited
in its scope and NAB lobbying has also limited the growth
of low-power FM and the service it could provide for communities.
We suspect that had NAB lost some of its lobbying that local
stations might well have been forced to boost their local
cover to meet the challenge, again to the benefit of all.
Elsewhere satellite is in its infancy and WorldSpace, the
only international satellite radio provider is only available
in limited geographic areas but even then it does seem to
be having some impact on terrestrial broadcasters' programming
In countries where it is not available, the existence of both
public and private broadcasters does widen choice but - regrettably
in our view - in some cases the unwillingness to pay for the
service means public broadcasters take adverts albeit in most
cases on their TV services but not radio, at least giving
an advert-free option (As in Canada for example where a relative,
who strongly supports the new Harper government nevertheless
listens to CBC radio on the basis of no adverts).
We should also not disregard a very important aspect of having
public and private sectors in terms of the choices open to
would-be staff who thereby gain extra options in terms of
the range and style of programming they can work on.
The internet has vastly improved choice
but it cannot create extra time and the main problem in our
view is sorting the wheat from the chaff, a problem particularly
acute with audio, which demands real time listening.
This has led us to particularly appreciate those broadcasters,
mainly public ones it has to be said, who offer programmes
via MP3s as well as streaming audio - and by MP3s we do not
This is because podcasts, convenient though they may be when
one is planning to listen to a particular programme every
day, week or whenever, are a cluttering mechanism when the
content is something sometimes well worth a listen but at
other times not.
The real choice therefore is when it is possible to choose
to listen to a live or on-demand stream and also be able to
scan a rundown and choose to download an MP3 when this appears
to have the desired content with a podcast offer a convenience
for programmes that will be listened to regularly and a nuisance
when often the text detail provided is skimpy and there isn't
time to listen to check if the programme is worth listening
to. In those cases podcasts in our view are like e-mails that
are subscribed to but with requiring more time than it does
to evaluate a text e-mail before junking or reading it.
Whatever is offered though, the ability to listen to broadcasts
from around the world is not to be undervalued: It is a tremendous
advance and as wireless broadband expands will inevitably
in our view cut into listening to off-air broadcasts. So for
those who want it, is the ability to download music - a two-way
plus since it offers orchestras and bands, which are not big
enough names to attract a recording contract, a fairly inexpensive
means to distribute their work to - and be paid for by - a
If for this reason only, we think the concept of net neutrality
needs to be preserved rather than allowing ISPs to give priority
to the already-advantaged big companies.
The whole range of offerings provide a challenge to the broadcasters
to match the offerings of competition from far away as well
as keeping a local edge but it may be a challenge too much
for some. That we may regret but we prefer the availability
of the new offerings and can only hope the development of
community radio can allow local broadcast options where commercial