Public interest(ed)?

April 1, 2001

Is the airing of content that makes most listeners dive for the off switch really making the airwaves serve the public interest?

In the wake of the LPFM debate, there has been much lamenting over the fate of the public airwaves. The apparent demise of LPFM has brought forth the ire of those who feel that the public interest is not well served by today's broadcasters. They assert that the airwaves are held in the public trust by licensees, but that business interests have overwhelmed any public-service role played by broadcasters.

These critics of the status quo decry the consolidated control of existing radio licensees, blaming the big-business mentality for the lack of responsibility among today's radio stations. Some of the sharpest invectives have been leveled at NPR, which found itself in a rare congruence of opinion with NAB and commercial broadcasters, as they all filed comments against LPFM.

Yet it has been shown that true public-interest content isn't widely listened to by radio audiences. Given that radio in the US is driven by audience size (this is largely true even for public radio), broadcasters are faced with a quandary: how to provide adequate public service and maintain the proper stewardship and viability of their channels.

Defining interest

The traditional definition of public service content implies programming of little interest to most listeners, with the primary exception of emergency information. Given the EAS requirements, this important divergence seems well covered under today's environment. In almost every other case, however, public interest programming is a general tune-out.

Is the airing of content that makes most listeners dive for the off switch really making the airwaves serve the public interest? To paraphrase a familiar quotation, if a PSA runs in the radio forest and no one hears it, is the public interest served?

LPFM was one attempt to solve this dilemma, but not a very good one. Even if the new LP stations carried worthy content, squeezing them onto the dial by reducing interference criteria to existing services is not an optimal path to serving the greater good. The public votes with its ears every day, and uses radio (both commercial and non-commercial) to satisfy multiple needs. Reducing the quality of these services that are already widely used would be a net disservice to the populace.

Further, if the content of those stations were truly public-service oriented — a big if, as discussed here previously (see The Last Byte, April 2000) — their audiences would be even smaller than their coverage areas might dictate, due to the afore-mentioned reasons.

Finally, how would these stations survive? There are some fixed costs to operating a radio station, no matter how low its power or minimalist its programming. So some degree of popularity is critical if LPFM stations are to be anything other than subsidized private-interest shills, or just plain bad radio. Given their small audience potential, LPFM stations are most likely to fall into the latter categories, again providing little in the way of increased public service.

It's a new world

Are public service and good radio mutually exclusive? Perhaps not, but their intersection is small in today's media marketplace. Thankfully, broadcasters can now reach their audiences via multiple service paths, one of which is the Internet. Narrow-interest content, such as most public service programming, is perfectly suited to the Internet service model. Broadcasters can mention the availability of such content on their on-air service, but place most of the actual content online, and in greater amounts than they would currently run on-air.

Further, the on-demand potential of an Internet service allows this content to have higher public service value, because it can be made available in a “pull” mode whenever the listener wants it. In addition, online public-service audio programming can be supplemented by print content and links to public service agencies.

While the Internet does not yet have the reach that radio provides, the public service offerings in many markets could be greatly improved by such applications of broadcasters' websites. Many stations have already begun this process, and others will likely follow. The industry should take advantage of these emerging opportunities rather than attempting to force an outmoded retrofit solution. The accessible, yet personalized, nature of new media provides a more elegant compromise. Thus, broadcasters can manage the often divergent requirements of serving the public interest and the interested public.

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