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Music And The Power Of Public Sector Radio

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It's National Radio week and this great piece from Berklee's Music Business Journal delves into music's lengthy and ongoing relationship with public sector radio both in the US and elsewhere, and how music on public sector radio is used to influence society.

Guest post by Alexander Stewart from Berklee's Music Business Journal

Broadcasting, especially radio, is a premier medium for the communication of music in society. Broadcasting and music, of course, have been closely related since radio became a household item in the late 1920s. In particular, music has always been a major part of radio programming, where considerable airtime is spent not only on the music itself but also on reports about music and musical events (this is one reason why terrestrial radio is still a significantly popular method of music consumption). Public broadcasting gives the added pleasure of not having to listen to advertisements and also allows for a much more diverse selection of musical styles.

All over the world, governments invest money into making the airways public and provide universal access where geography, for instance, stands in the way. The push is harder when a nation’s identity is at stake — or when a politician wishes to consolidate his or her power base, like Adolf Hitler did in the Third Reich or Juan Domingo Peron did in Argentina during the mid 1940s. More often than not, though, public radio struggles to gain sufficient funding for its broadcasts. Without taxpayer money, the well dries up. Regardless, public radio continues to play a major role in the modern world’s development and has certainly contributed to the progress of music.

Market Makers

BBC disc jockey, radio presenter and journalist, John Peel, shaped the tastes of several generations of music fanatics in the UK. Since his debut in Radio 1 in 1967, where he co-presented Top Gear, he became a hit, playing music that was well ahead of his time, including psychedelic and progressive rock records, as well as reggae. He is widely acknowledged for promoting artists working in various genres, including pop, indie rock, alternative rock, punk, death metal, British hip hop, and electronic music.

Without the need to cater to a mainstream audience and advertisers, John Peel actively played artists such as Pink Floyd, David Bowie, and Led Zeppelin, who went on to become some of the most influential British acts of all time. By the early 1970s, Peel, along with his producers Bernie Andrews and John Walters, were recording and broadcasting sessions by Roxy Music, Queen, and The Wailers, simultaneously managing to placate the Musicians’ Union by giving its members extra work and creating a valuable archive for future generations to enjoy. In the spring of 1976, Peel acquired an import copy of The Ramones’ eponymous debut album and helped to accelerate the punk revolution. A few years later, as Bob Marley became famous, he pushed reggae and ultimately helped usher in The Police.

A current example of the influence of public radio in changing contemporary pop mores comes from another Anglo-Saxon country, Australia. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation is Australia’s national public broadcaster, again funded from taxes. In 1975, the ABC launched a new radio station with the intention to engage people aged between 18 and 35. Originally named Double J but later changed to what it is known as today, Triple J, is Australia’s national youth radio network that broadcasts contemporary alternative and independent music. While the network plays soundtracks from around the world, it has a strong focus on Australian artists. Triple J frequently features new and alternative music and local Australian performers, and programming often shows a bias against Top 40 hits. It covers specialist programs in different musical genres, news, and other current affairs from a youth-oriented perspective. The station quickly gained popularity and is now one of the most listened to stations in Australia. Triple J is especially good at breaking new local acts. Midnight Oil, the prime example of this, would almost certainly not have had anything like the success they enjoyed without it. Other acts such as Missy Higgins, Gotye, and Powderfinger, as well as Aussie hip hop acts like the Hilltop Hoods are in their debt too. The station also broke countless overseas acts that were unknown in their home countries such as Good Charlotte. But overall, the station is a central reason as to why Australian musicians are able to compete with dominant exports from the Unites States and the U.K.

In the US, however, music serves a different purpose on public radio stations. Because of the size and dominance of the commercial American music industry globally, there is no real need to preserve a local voice musically — the market does well without the need for public radio’s endorsement. So, public broadcasters like NPR have had less of an influence on the industry. Yet NPR and other similar stations still provide an alternative to Top 40 music. Many play jazz, classical, and world music styles that are distinguished on various segments throughout public broadcasts in the US. American public broadcasting serves more than half the nation each month and, like elsewhere, prides itself on putting out high quality news, award- winning cultural and educational programs that no one else would touch, and an independent and balanced political fare.

Music and the State

Public radio is an example of the public sector’s influence on the music ecosystem. But publicly funded radio is not the only way the state becomes involved in the radio industry. In countries where there is an interest in preserving local culture, radio quotas tend to be enforced for both public and commercial radio. A given percentage of all song airplay has to be in the mother tongue. In such countries, music is weighed more heavily as a cultural good rather than an entertainment commodity, and there is a desire to compete with Anglo-Saxon pop imports. Regardless, local commercial radio owners tend to unite against the practice of radio quotas because they lose advertising revenue as programming reflects other considerations than just the music.

France is one such country. Radio quotas were imposed in 1994 to protect France from what the government saw as the “Anglo-Saxon cultural invasion.” The law required that 40% of all song airplay had to be in the French language. This has proved to be a boon for French songwriters and French artists in general:  by virtue of their language choice, they have a much greater chance of being broadcasted and thus can propel their musical careers more easily than outside talent. But not all is smooth. For French radio programmers, who already object to lesser ad money coming in from local music broadcasts versus foreign ones, problems are compounding. When a proportion of young French artists, including the electronic duo Daft Punk, began writing songs in English to attract a more international audience, they lost more listeners. The result has been an acknowledgement that stiff quotas carry some unexpected costs. Last year, acknowledging new circumstances, the French Government reduced the quota to 35%.

Other examples of radio quotas abound. In Ecuador, where less than 10% of the airtime on major radio stations was afforded to local artists before 2013, a 50% quota was imposed. A long list of countries has moved or is now moving in that direction, including the Philippines, Mexico, Nigeria, Israel, South Africa, Jamaica, Venezuela, Russia, and New Zealand. In Canada, where English and French coexist as the official languages since 1969, at least half of the Popular Music selections of CBC Radio Canada stations have to be of Canadian origin. In many parts of the world, therefore, the public airways are not devoid of legislative intervention.  There, the State becomes a market maker by choosing the music airplay it deems appropriate.

Public Radio’s Focus

  As has been suggested above, public radio corporations seek to preserve language and culture. The BBC is also dedicated to supporting multiculturalism and diversity, in part by using on-screen commentators and hosts of different ethnic origins. There are also Welsh, Irish, and Scottish Gaelic language programmes for the home nations, an Asian Network broadcasting in English and five major languages of South Asia, and the BBC World Service which broadcasts in thirty-one international languages. The Canadian government, naturally, promotes Canada’s official bilingualism. In New Zealand, the public broadcasting system provides support to Māori broadcasting, with the stated intention of improving Māori opportunities and maintaining the cultural heritage and language. In Australia, the ABC is legally required to encourage and promote the musical, dramatic, and other performing arts, and to broadcast programs that contribute to a sense of national self with specific emphasis on regional and rural areas.

It should be remembered as well that public radio’s general function is in keeping with a public service, both speaking to and engaging national audiences in as high a level of discourse as possible and over different points of views. The standard set by the BBC has been widely accepted, with its concurrent goals of geographical outreach, its coverage of issues affecting minorities and marginalized communities – all while distancing itself from any vested commercial interest.

Britain: Sample History

The history of the BBC, the oldest national broadcasting institution in the world, is instructive and gives perspective to the interplay between music and public radio. The broadcast of music was never the reason for public radio. As implied above, more was at stake.

Ironically, the BBC, which was born in 1922, was created with a commercial interest in mind.  It was set up to sell radios and was owned by a major wireless radio manufacturer. It proved to be a disappointing business venture. But a Royal Charter encouraged the new medium of magical boom boxes in households across the country. A license fee was decided upon, paid by taxpayers, and the financial future of public radio was assured.  Today, the BBC serves under the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport; it is now funded principally by an annual television license fee that is charged to all British households, companies, and organizations using any type of equipment that receives or records live television broadcasts. Naturally, the value of the BBC to Britain and the UK’s sense of national identity have grown with the times, especially during WWII, when the public airways had to come under much closer government supervision — and with good results.

It is unarguable too that the BBC played a critical role in the British musical resurgence of the 1960s, and, through its World Service, the diffusion of pop around the world: John Peel was the charming and jovial interviewer of The Beatles series “Live at the BBC” from 1963-1965. This was important for musicians and their fans, but clearly it also advanced the UK’s soft international power.

The US: Sample History

Unlike the BBC, the US Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) was created under President Lyndon Johnson’s administration (1963-1969) with only modest support from the federal government. It came much later than the BBC, but with nation building and the integration Civil Rights, it must have played a significant role. Given the existing spread of private radio stations across the US, the CPB aggregated unrelated radio and TV stations, many of them owned by large universities, as well as other nonprofit advocacy organizations and community corporations who frequently struggled financially. Today, NPR (National Public Radio) is a non-profit media organization that encompasses nearly 900 radio stations in the United States.

The funding of NPR is complicated, for it has to reach out and ask listeners for piecemeal contributions every few months, and, unlike the BBC, interrupting regular programming to do so. The support for a licensing fee arrangement from all taxpayers is not required in the US. As a result, NPR could never have the universal reach that the BBC had and still has in Britain. That is why, in part, NPR is never thought of as a top-tier music promoter. The US music marketplace, moreover, is entirely self- sufficient commercially, and there is no basis for arguing that public sector radio should be used to support the average musician. It might help in niche and off beat genres, but that is the extent of it. It must be remembered that, say, unlike France or Sweden, two countries that have a public sector ready to step in and help the development of commercially minded musicians, the US public sector regards the music marketplace as mostly serving an entertainment diet that does not need its encouragement (France, as mentioned, uses radio quotas a lot, whereas Sweden has a music export office that helps its talent compete in Europe and America).

Today, NPR’s financial struggles are indicative of its poor country cousin status in the priorities of the US federal government. During the 1970s and early 1980s, the majority of NPR’s funding came from federal taxpayers. Now, likely less than one out of every ten dollars does. Moreover, its editorial independence has brought it into conflict with President Donald Trump.  Federal money seems likely to become a dwindling source in the future, given the Republican-controlled Congress and NPR’s relentless criticism of the President. Individual on-air pledges and corporate underwritings are strong, but they will have to make up for the inevitable near term drop in taxpayer contributions. The long-term drama of US public radio is that as its purse strings are taken over by private donors and commercial interests, commercial considerations may dictate its programming. Moreover, because it is perceived as partisan to liberal causes, it does not seem to make sense to empower NPR as a universal nation- building tool. This is a pity, for the State could still give and expect to exercise some influence over it for the general good. Either way, commercial music will still be an afterthought in any discussion about the future of NPR.

Conclusion

The music industry owes a huge debt of gratitude to taxpayer collections. This was made clear by looking at selected examples from Britain and Australia, two countries where pop music made an international splash on the back of public radio. The BBC was far from being neutral to the British Invasion of the 1960s, and Australia’s public radio was key in eruption of Australian groups in the world scene after the 1970s.

As was shown too, the State can also become a market maker by imposing radio airplay quotas for songs to be sung in the national tongue. Like public radio in general, here the consideration is the promotion of local culture and artists. Local radio programmers might disagree and sell fewer advertisements, but at least they can understand the virtue of the policy.

Public radio has many functions, not least forging a civil society’s common identity. Music may not be the main wind behind it, although in some important instances public radio has paid it an important service. Now, the danger is that as the world moves away from free trade and open borders, the struggle to finance public radio may detract from its projection at a time when it is most needed.

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