Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The State versus Broadcasting

by Tibor R. Machan

In 1927 Congress nationalized the ether—now known as the electromagneticspectrum. This is the sphere where broadcast radio and television signalstravel. Instead of treating the realm as subject to homesteading and othermeans of allocation as private property—which is how it should have beendone in a bona fide free country—the politicians, led by a NebraskaSenator, just took the whole thing for the government—in the name of thatinsidious pseudo entity, "the public."

Like "the community" or "society" or "the people," "the public" is avirtually empty concept. Yes,there can be proper uses of it—such as when we say that protection ofindividual rights is a public good, meaning, it is really to everyone'sbenefit in a country. But this is very rare. Mostly "the public," as "thecommunity," is rolled out as a cover forvarious special interests.

So now when the two companies, XM and Sirius, propose merging into a $13billion satellite corporation, claiming that such consolidation providesthe only economically feasible means for saving radio, there are againvoices insisting that "the public interest" demands governmentinterference! And again, of course, it is a ruse.

In an Op Ed piece for The New York Times, sociology (1) professor EricKlinenberg who wrote the book Fighting for Air: The Battle to ControlAmerica's Media, puts in a plea thus:

"It's time for Congress and the F.C.C. to consider policy ideas intended toserve the public interest, like requiring broadcast radio stations to airoriginal programming on the new digital stations, or allowing satellitecompanies to run local news, talk and music. Mega-mergers are unlikely toprovide any real benefits to citizens and consumers. Why resort to evenmore consolidation when we already know it doesn't work?"

Notice how the interest of some people who like to listen to radio andwant it to broadcast "local news, talk and music," is used to asa justification for government requiring what a business must be requiredto do. No, let us not leave it to market forces, supply and demand—whichwould let the company sink or swim, as any other business based on itsperformance and management. Instead bring in the feds because, of course,government's running of broadcast firms, as any other kind, has proven tobe such a roaring success everywhere around the globe. And all sonecessary, given how it is in the public interest.

Here is Klinenberg's powerful case:

"Radio is our most intimate medium—it wakes us in the morning, follows usinto the shower, accompanies us during commutes and becomes a lifeline inemergencies. But radio is struggling to attract and retain an audience."

To start with, radio is not "our" medium. Listeners purchaseradio offerings just like they do other things, only in a slightly morecomplicated way; namely, through accepting advertising along with theprogramming, as it happens when we visit all those “free” web sites or paya token price for newspapers and magazines—far less, in any case, thanwhat they actually cost to produce.

Professor Klinenberg gives away his case by admitting that radio has beenhaving a problem attracting and retaining a sufficiently large audience tomake all those wishing to be in the business succeed. Which means it isclearly not a "public good," something for everyone, like policeprotection or the courts that are good candidates for what does serve agenuine public interest. In other words, millions and millions of us arequite happy living without "our" supposedly most intimatemedium. Instead of listening to radio, the members of the public oftenjust purchase CDs or buy programming from the Internet. Or, maybe, theydon't at all listen to what radio offers, not music, not talk shows, notnews, because they have different interests or sources.

But because one academic sociologist, along with maybe a pretty sizablespecial interest group, would like to have radio handed to it on the backsof the rest of us, with Congress and the FCC regimenting the industry totheir heart's content, government is supposed to treat radio servicedifferently, as if it were the legal system or the military standing indefense of everyone's rights.

I hope this isn't going to happen. Let the Republican administration atthe FCC resist this plea for the feds to get into it all again, as whenthey made that awful judgment back in 1927 to make the electromagneticspectrum "ours."

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