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Monday, December 9

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Airbags

It's that time again. I awake not to the local news or a timely weather report but to a plea for cash. It's pledge drive time at National Public Radio.

Twice a year, NPR fundraising drives leave me torn and broken. I feel compelled to do my part, but I've some unpleasant history with NPR. Here's the backstory:

In 1996, under the guidance of President Clinton, congress passed the Telecommunications Act. It generated much attention due to a provision called the Communications Decency Act; an attempt to prevent the dissemination of pornography over the world wide web. Subsequently found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, the Communications Decency bits were neatly excised, and the bill proceeded unto law.

But the Decency Act was little more than a smoke screen designed to divert attention from the real nastiness -- the wholesale deregulation of publicly owned radio spectrum.

While well-meaning liberals and free speech advocates were fighting to protect my right to masturbate furiously over digitized images of engorged genitalia, the rules governing radio and television conglomerates were quietly rewritten.

Where media companies were once limited to a fixed number of stations in a given market, they were now given leave to expand exponentially. A short time later, every Chicago radio station (with the exception of NPR and a few college stations) was owned by an oligarchy of select companies. In some smaller markets, a single entity (most often the good people at ClearChannel) held the license to each and every commercial radio outlet.

Which, as even staunch free market capitalists are forced to admit, effectively squelches the public right to freedom of speech.

This is not a good thing. Clinton realized this, as did the FCC. To rectify the situation, they contemplated the reinstatement a form of broadcast put to rest in the late '70s; Low Powered FM (LPFM).

With a signal strength powerful enough only to reach the boundaries of a small neighborhood or church parish, LPFM was seen as a means of allowing community access to the airwaves without stepping on the massive toes of the media companies. It was a good compromise. Even before it was formally presented to congress, I wrote into the FCC and requested information.

Alas, it was not to be. Testifying before a congressional committee, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) claimed that LPFM stations would cause irreparable interference with commercial stations. Chaos would ensue, and the public would ultimately be shortchanged.

This is bunk. LPFM stations broadcast with less than 100 watts of power (your microwave draws far more energy) whereas large commercial stations can pump out programming at up to 50,000 watts. LPFM would amount to little more than a mosquito on their windshield.

But the argument of the NAB received much needed credence from an unlikely ally: National Public Radio. The NPR folks made the same arguments, corroborating the evidence presented by the NAB, and providing cover for their purely commercial interests. LPFM was aborted almost instantly.

Why? Money. The NAB felt they would lose advertising revenue to local LPFM stations, and NPR -- always strapped for cash -- was certain they'd lose potential donors.

Though it was years ago, I'm still angry. I love NPR, have worked for NPR, and rely on them for nearly all of my news, current events, etc. Once a fairly generous donor (as much as my means would allow) I now turn my back on their cries for help.

And I do so with a clear conscience.

Though I'll probably write out a check tomorrow.

GB store

Comments

Ian / October 24, 2003 9:03 AM

Dave,

I hear your message, but we have to look at where we are now and what we are protecting, not what could have been.

Therefore, please extract your credit card, pick-up the phone and dial that numberů

Cinnamon / October 24, 2003 10:25 AM

We have more than one radio station in this town. I'd recommend dropping a couple of bucks toward WLUW. They're just as independent (especially after Loyola U. yanked all their funding), they have great independent music, they have news, they have young djs, and they cost a fraction of what WBEZ costs to run. The amount of money raised during This American Life could keep the entire station up and running for a year.

Luke / October 24, 2003 11:07 AM

But since BEZ funds LUW, wouldn't supporting the former help them both out?

Cinnamon / October 24, 2003 11:09 AM

No, Luke, WBEZ doesn't fund WLUW. WBEZ has taken over fundraising management for WLUW, but the moneys collected are not shared in any way. If you want to support WLUW, you have to give money specifically to them.

Luke / October 24, 2003 11:23 AM

Ah, my mistake.

JohnGalt / October 27, 2003 1:17 PM

"Which, as even staunch free market capitalists are forced to admit, effectively squelches the public right to freedom of speech."

Alternate ways for the public to express itself:

1. Books
2. Magazines
3. Newspapers
4. Web sites (like this one)
5. Satellite radio
6. Billboards
7. Instant messages
8. Random phone calls
9. Talking to strangers
10. Writing on sidewalks in chalk.
11. Yelling loudly

Monopolizing radio is not squelching free speech. It is monopolizing radio.

Many years from now, I think we will find the high prices paid for 'traditional' media outlets back in the 1990s was money down the drain. How many listeners does NPR have in Chicago? How much money would it cost to set up a web site that reached the same number of people? Less than the value of the radio station, I'd wager.

vilca / November 20, 2003 8:11 PM

ser excelete herrameinta para trabajos en al red mundial.

vilca / November 20, 2003 8:11 PM

ser excelete herrameinta para trabajos en al red mundial.

vilca / November 20, 2003 8:12 PM

merci bubocup

 

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