Monday, September 28, 2009

DC Radio & Regulation

I’ve often wondered about our media structure, specifically with respect to radio. When I was working in arts marketing, public radio listeners were our target audience. While the US recognizes the value of public broadcasting, it stops short of the British model of the BBC, and places the onus on consumers themselves to guarantee that such media exists. What happens, then? Well, three years ago DC had its last dedicated classical music station – something now unheard of in many cities of its size. When its owner, broadcasting company Bonneville International, first became interested in changing its format, it took a route that these articles allude to: it took away the power of the signal. In the medium of radio, signal reigns supreme. After switching stations to a less powerful signal (subtly deemphasizing the importance of the station), WGMS experienced further set-backs and ultimately ceased operations in 2007. As marketers, we were forced to turn to the only other obvious option for advertising classical music: public radio. The heavy restrictions on advertising, however, limited our reach. In an effort to prevent blatant product promotion, public radio “advertisers” were prevented from any copy approximating “promotion” of their product. At the end of our pitches, we couldn’t so much as say “call to buy tickets”. We could merely leave a phone number and a website and hope for the best. Finally, while the best way to sell music is to sample the music itself, we were restricted from playing even the shortest of excerpts.

Does this make sense? NPR, of course, relies primarily on the support of individual donors, many of whom resent forceful advertising pitches and appreciate the more subtle spots run on public radio stations. Living in Germany provided an excellent view into a much different system of regulation with respect to media. As Thussu’s article mentions, Germany was very slow to join in on the rapid changes to media in the 80s and 90s. In fact, Germany is still markedly different from the US in terms of media: while living there, we were assessed a radio and TV usage fee, regardless of whether or not we ever used our radio and TV – we just had to own one to be required to pay the fee. This provided a reliable revenue stream for public media and prevented their programs from being dictated by advertising dollars. (Notably, Berlin had at least one dedicated classical music station, as does every other major European city, and lots of smaller ones too.)

Who has it right, then? In managing the messages, images, and thoughts of cultures around the world, there are going to be challenges to the definition of what is appropriate “societal regulation”, and furthermore, continued differences with respect to who pays to enforce such regulation.

The very first paragraph of the “Introduction to National Media Regulation” article points out a startling yet obvious fact: that media productions should “be allowed to get on with what they claim to do best – producing what people want, measured by what they will pay for?” Is this the only way to measure value? Are we smart enough to pay for that which is best for us, and if we’re not, have we only ourselves to blame?

Overall, however, these articles highlighted the remarkable synchronization of so many incredibly different nations, and their overwhelming success in maintaining a culture of cooperation with respect to global governance. Additionally, it is impressive to see the increasing role of non-governmental organizations within the global governance framework. Without neglecting the continued struggles of many forgotten nation-states, it is still impressive that many new voices are being heard through these effective and increasingly powerful organizations.

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