It's fund-raising time!

It is again time for the publicly funded, American TV and radio stations to ask for money. Under the guise of providing local programming, in this rational day and age, we have to put up with such quarterly rituals.

The problem I have with "local" programming is that, except for offering ample opportunities for few local egos, they would be an interesting idea. Culture comes especially in its garden variety. Voices and faces are few and the same. A better name for these media would be communally-funded schemes of full-employment.

Today, unless one lives in one of the top FIVE metropolitan areas, chances are that most worth watching, and tuning in to, materials are not local. This situation makes, for the educated consumer of media, a very parochial landscape. There could not even be a comparison between our public media and the likes of BBC, ARTE, Canal+, Pro7. Moreover, when was the last time you watched a non-American/British film on PBS? Not even one from the Sundance Film Festival?

As alternative, I suggest that all the locally raised funds be pooled by NPR and PBS, which, in turn, can allocate them more efficiently. The result should consist of more programming and variety, higher quality programming (i.e culture and education), and fewer re-runs. Even in comparison to developing countries, the average American consumer of public media gets programming in less quantity, and of lower quality.

By pooling resources, the US public media could achieve higher levels in consumers satisfaction. For example, PBS could develop content for several channels, each channel targeting a major demographic. The classical music radio programming could also gain from consolidation by allocating adequate resources for interviews and music education. The American consumers of media would have more access to meaningful and real variety, not the current "variety" each category of media consumer gets so little of it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

NPR Takes on Washington

Battling for the Airwaves in Berlin

By Charles Hawley in Berlin

The Berlin frequency 87.9 FM has been in American government hands since the end of World War II. But the frequency is now up for renewal and venerated US public broadcaster National Public Radio is mounting serious competition for the government propaganda channel. The battle has exposed the ugly underbelly of the Bush Administration's public relations strategy.

Voice of America and National Public Radio are both trying to get a piece of the Berlin sky.
Voice of America and National Public Radio are both trying to get a piece of the Berlin sky.
At first glance, the cause of the controversy seems pedestrian enough. The radio frequency 87.9 is up for grabs in Berlin and there are a number of aspirants hoping to take it over. Radio business as usual. Yawn.

But what would normally be a boring procedural matter become a struggle for the image of the United States abroad. The 87.9 FM frequency in Berlin is currently in the hands of Voice of America (VOA), the US government sponsored station that broadcasts in dozens of countries around the world.

With VOA's license coming up for renewal, a new hat has been thrown into the ring. National Public Radio (NPR), the respected US public news and entertainment broadcaster, is hoping to take over the slot on the Berlin FM dial. But VOA isn't letting go without a fight -- and it has powerful supporters.

"The frequency 87.9 was always the American station," said Ingeborg Zahrnt of the Medienanstalt Berlin-Brandenburg, the organization that has the final say in the matter and will likely announce its decision in early December. "Of course the US government wants Voice of America to be awarded the frequency. It's their radio station. It's a question of how you present yourself as a country."

In recent years, the US has allowed its 87.9 FM outpost on the Berlin airwaves to languish. Today, it's a skeleton of the station that once brought jazz, American literature and daily news to a divided city. On Aug. 4, 1945, just months after Soviet forces marched into the city on behalf of the Allied forces, Washington began broadcasting the American Forces Network (AFN) in the German capital. The station -- of which many Berliners still have fond memories -- provided an important democratic voice that could be heard on both sides of the Berlin Wall.
Sign up for Spiegel Online's daily newsletter and get the best of Der Spiegel's and Spiegel Online's international coverage in your In-Box everyday.

Dwindling number of listeners

But the fall of the Wall in 1989 led to a waning US military presence in Europe and diminished interest on the part of the US government in sponsoring radio in Europe. Since 1997, the 87.9 frequency has been used to provide a dwindling number of listeners a few minutes of VOA news every hour with the rest of the 60 minutes taken up by rock-music station Star FM.

Meanwhile, BBC World and Radio France International continued to broadcast, finding new opportunities and audiences in a newly reunified city.

VOA's neglect has apparently not limited US zeal to hang on to the frequency, though. Critics say the US government acts as if it owns the 87.9 slot and, while Zahrnt insists that official pressure on her organization has been kept to a minimum ("It's not like Bush has called up or anything!") she does admit, "there are those in the government who we talk with, of course."

But the pressure is there -- not only on officials here in Berlin, but also on NPR. In addition to emphasizing the US government's decades-long presence on the Berlin airwaves, the Bush administration -- or at least its political appointees heading up the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in Washington -- has been on the war path against National Public Radio. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which funnels tax dollars into public television and radio broadcasters in the US, has significantly cut the amount allocated to NPR. Earlier this year the corporation's board also told staff it should consider redirecting money away from NPR news programs and toward music programs.

Meddling with the media

This behavior can be explained by the fact that many US conservatives -- including many in the Bush administration, as well as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's former chair, Kenneth Tomlinson -- consider NPR to be a bastion of left-wing journalism. Indeed, Tomlinson -- before he resigned in mid-November amid accusations of his own conservative bias -- even considered setting up a study (without the knowledge of other corporation board members) to determine whether NPR was being overly favorable to Arabs in the Middle East.

Others have suggested that NPR's presence could actually benefit trans-Atlantic relations. In an essay in the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung this summer, journalist Heinrich Wefing, said the station's broadcast might have helped to counterbalance the worst prejudices in Germany about the perceived hawkish tendencies of Americans. "Of course NPR would not have been able to stop the dispute over the war in Iraq," Wefing wrote. "But if NPR had been broadcasting in Berlin before the storming of Baghdad, then at least some of the most persistent prejudices about America could have been tempered."

The Voice of America is the last vestige of American radio in Berlin. NPR is hoping to change that.
The Voice of America is the last vestige of American radio in Berlin. NPR is hoping to change that.
But with VOA's hand on the controls in Berlin, NPR has only been available to the city's listeners by satellite. The Tomlinson-imposed ban on the airing of any NPR content on 87.9 FM as long as it's controlled by VOA hasn't made it any easier for the popular public broadcaster to come to Germany. And even with Tomlinson no longer pulling the strings at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, he still wields tremendous influence over VOA as chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors. According to its Web site, the agency is responsible for "all US government and government sponsored, non-military, international broadcasting."

In response to numerous e-mails and phone calls from SPIEGEL Online, VOA responded merely by confirming its intention to hold on to the 87.9 frequency.

NPR, for its part, has had its eye on Berlin -- one of Europe's biggest radio markets -- for years. With the VOA license expiring in April 2006, the station saw its chance. NPR and VOA tried to negotiate a joint proposal, but talks collapsed in acrimony early this year. Since then, NPR has lobbied Berlin authorities in an effort to convince them that broadcasts like "Morning Edition," "All Things Considered," or "Car Talk" would be more beneficial to Berliners than US government sponsored news. NPR has also pledged to create original English-language programming for its future Berlin listeners.

"What Berlin needs," said Jeff Rosenberg -- head of NPR Worldwide, the branch of National Public Radio that manages the station's overseas broadcasts -- "is an American cultural voice -- not just five minutes of news on the hour or the assistant secretary of state explaining the minutiae of trade policy. Berliners are perfectly capable of interpreting the programming we provide -- which is a true American cultural voice."

Support for the NPR bid has been unprecedented. Hundreds of e-mails and letters have arrived at the offices of the Berlin authorities, and a number of American expatriate groups in Berlin have gotten in on the act. Even former American diplomat John Kornblum, who now makes his home in Berlin, has thrown his support behind NPR.

The fat lady is warming up

"I have always felt it was unfortunate that we didn't use our frequency the way the British or the French do," Kornblum says, referring to the presence of BBC World and Radio France International in Berlin. "Non-governmental information outlets just do better than governmental outlets. I'm not a fan of the current government, but that's not why I say that. I just think people aren't interested in government sponsored information anymore." Of course, both BBC World and Radio France International receive funding from their respective governments, but both enjoy greater reputations in Europe for journalistic objectivity than VOA.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the United States slowly lost interest in the Voice of America.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the United States slowly lost interest in the Voice of America.
Some might argue that the Voice of America is anything but a government mouthpiece. Indeed, in its heyday, the station was seen as a reliable source of information and its coverage of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 was widely respected the world over. But in recent years, the Broadcasting Board of Governors under Tomlinson has turned its attention elsewhere, including the creation of the Arabic language television station Alhurra in 2004 and two radio stations -- Radio Sawa for Iraq and Radio Farda for Iran. At the same time, the VOA has come under increased pressure to cast the US government in a positive light. Indeed, the station's Web site was forced to remove pictures of Abu Ghraib torture victims and VOA management has several times objected to stories quoting Democratic politicians or editorials critical of the Bush administration, according to a June article on the VOA in Foreign Affairs.

The fight over the 87.9 frequency has not attracted much attention in Berlin. Indeed, most looking for English language news just tune into BBC and don't spend much time thinking about why the American radio presence is so paltry.

But, says David Knutson, the opera-singing head of the expat group Bridgebuilders, a lot of older Berliners want NPR as an American voice in Berlin.

"I think NPR will get it," he says. "From everyone I've talked to, it seems to be on its way. But it ain't over till the fat lady sings. And the fat lady in this case is the Medienanstalt Berlin-Brandenburg."

Popular Posts