November 2006

Broad or narrow?

Broad or narrow?

It's the audience-stupid! No! It's the broadcasters! NO! It's…

Having been born before TV in practical terms - it would have been after TV but for a war - and many years before the first remote control we grew up with the habit of listening and also of listening to programming that was constructed without advertisement breaks and with the expectation that the listener would both stick with what the broadcaster was transmitting and also that the following programme might be of a very different kind.

In other words, we grew up with broadcasting and are now in a world that seems to us in many ways very much a narrowcasting one as far as radio is concerned and in the US very much so.

Narrowcasting is of course something that many advertisers appreciate since they can target a specific audience and thus rule out people like us - old enough not to fall for their guff albeit often spending more than the younger demographic to which they do like to appeal and that in balance terms often swings further to the money and less to the sense.

We would like to argue this month in favour of broadcasting in the sense of breadth of content and hope that the technological developments that have made it possible to cram more channels into the same airwaves do not kill of the serendipitous benefits to the individual and a society of a broadcast.

Why does it matter?

"Why does it matter?" is of course the first question that springs to mind since obviously if there is a vast choice available through narrowcasting, people can presumably opt in and out of the same - or an even broader - range of programming that was previously available to them.

The same could, of course be said, of ready availability of junk food that is bad for the health but good for the bottom line of the companies selling it and we would argue that there is indeed a great similarity.

In the latter case, human habits evolved over a period where there was frequent scarcity and having reserves of fat could well be a life preserver: Nowadays, of course, it's far more likely to be a life degrader or ender.

The same in many ways is true of human habits when it comes to new experiences, particularly ones that require effort before gaining full enjoyment: A large number of people will settle for that with which they are comfortable and not bother broadening their experience.
That, in our view, lessens the chances of them using their full potential and ultimately means that their lives are less satisfying albeit in a bovine way they may be happier.

The benefits of serendipity.

At the heart of our argument is the serendipitous experience - walking into an art gallery or museum for a specific experience but happening on something unplanned that excites the senses; listening to a radio station for one reason but catching the start of something else that interests enough to stay listening, widen perspectives, and sometimes be enthralled by a new experience or perspective.

That is far less likely to happen if listening is to a particular genre of music, a particular politically biased talk station, a sports-only station, or even in many cases a news station since however widely the latter may range the remit does not usually permit examination of a topic in depth.
That of itself is the main reason we so rarely recommend listening to US radio in our weekly suggestions - very few programmes go into depth on a topic and where their reports are limited to a few minutes they are - to be frank - generally going to add very little to what people interested in a later listening already know.

Contrasted with public broadcasters such as the Australian, British and Canadian Broadcasting Corporations they are snack services and we would contend that the US has over the years paid a very heavy price for the narrowness of outlook that has emanated from US broadcasters when it comes to understanding the likely effects of particular actions in other cultures: Indeed as we are writing this we have just heard a report on NBC finally calling what is happening in Iraq a civil war.

To anyone with an elementary grasp of facts and respect for language we would contend that there has been a civil war for quite a while now and the refusal to accept it has been an ostrich act accentuated by an administration that ha a reputation for bullying and vindictive retribution to those who contradict what it wants to believe.

The terrible thing about this is the effect it's had, particularly on the Iraqis who could justifiably not feel concerned about any attack on the US that produced deaths in less than the hundreds of thousands based on a simple calculation related to casualties and population size, the attitudes to the US in most of the world, the costs - human for those in the armed forces and their families (we don't really care a fig about those in comfortable berths at home in this regard) and ultimately in financial and security terms for not just Americans but for people all over the world.

We would not argue that a different media could have prevented what has happened from taking place but it would certainly have been better for the US in the long run had there been more telling of uncomfortable truths - upsetting as they may have been to advertisers and audience - if only because it could have provoked more productive thought about possible options before it was too late.

Is there any way back? Or what can be done?

From the above, it is clear that we think that it would be preferable were broadcasting to be more broad but we don't really see any way back in a commercial environment where the advertisers rule.

The question in practical terms therefore is whether it is possible to stem a move to narrowing output by non-commercial broadcasters, something that has already begun happening at the BBC World Service which has narrowed its range to concentrate more on news. The result has been a larger audience but we have seen no figures on listening time - we still listen but do so less - nor on how far the audience appreciate what they are now getting - we appreciate the service less since the news content is repetitive-when you've hear a story once you don't need to hear it again in the next bulletin and the one after that and the one after that with only minor changes - and often the information is available elsewhere.

The change, in other words, looked at from a narrow perspective has been positive since there are more listeners but on a broader one may be less positive or even negative.

The same is true of what has happened elsewhere in the world and from other broadcasters but the marketplace as such is a poor mechanism for determining the best overall value to a society of its broadcasters when the sole or dominant determinant is the interests of salespeople -- snake-oil or otherwise.

To counter that we can only suggest that people who do value the benefits of the broad be more vocal about it. When a US broadcaster - and CNN for example has produced some strong long radio programmes over the past couple of years - does actually make the effort they should make the effort to let them know it was appreciated and also, where applicable, to let sponsors of programming know of the appreciation.
It would also be valuable for academics, who probably could set up such studies if motivated, to conduct deeper examinations and surveys of attitudes.

In the meantime, those of us fortunate enough to live in a country where there is a strong public broadcaster should also provide feedback to them and others to know of the things that are valuable and appreciated.
With luck a combination of more thorough evaluation of the effects and appreciation of programming combined with feedback will preserve much of the good and maybe increase it.

What you think? Please E-mail your comments.

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