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Specialist music, the public good, and radio programming November 14, 2011

Posted by wallofsound in Music Radio.

My analysis of the state of radio and popular music in the twentieth century starts with a fundamental question about the degree to which the radio systems we currently have in place, and the ones which are emerging, serve our common good. Starting with this question generates a very different approach to one built upon questions about the potential for radio to generate profits, or the degree to which radio serves the needs of listeners, although they are not incompatible approaches. In essence I am asking questions about the political economy and culture of radio and popular music. Restating Vincent Moscow’s general definition for music radio, political economy seeks to study ‘the power relations that mutually constitute the production, distribution, and consumption’ of music and radio (Mosco 1996, 25). Such an activity becomes evaluative when we utilise two very different ideas of the ‘public good’. In the first, radio and music are seen in Samuelson’s economic terms as ‘a public good’. That is, a collectively consumed product or service, where one person’s consumption does not exclude consumption by others, and where indirect or collective forms of funding or regulation are required to compensate for the failure of traditional markets (Samuelson 1954). Over-the-air radio is a classic example because it was initially freely available to those with a receiver, allowing listeners to benefit without paying directly. For this reason radio has evolved funding forms as diverse as spot advertising, listener-support sponsorship, and the UK licence fee. In addition, as the preferences of listeners are not communicated by a direct exchange of cash for radio listening, regulators often intervene to ensure the diverse interests of listeners are met. The second idea, ‘the public good’, refers to our collective economic, moral and cultural well-being, rooted in Utilitarian or moral philosophy (Bentham, Burns et al. 1996; Rawls and Kelly 2001). As I will show, the provision of music is often discussed in terms of the way it serves the cultural vitality of our society.

Both these versions of public good have been central to debates about radio and music since records and radio were first employed, and they became focused again as new technology started to shift the balance of power between musicians, record companies, radio stations and music fans in the twenty-first century. For instance, the idea that radio was a public good and that unrestricted over-the-air broadcasting would not deliver an ideal radio system was central to the review of radio in the UK conducted by the nation’s communications regulator, Ofcom (OfCom 2004). Likewise, the review is linked directly to the public good when it seeks to ‘develop an up-to-date set of public purposes for radio performances’ (49). In another example, policy makers in the UK’s public broadcaster, the BBC, used the idea of the public good to argue for the corporation’s continued existence and to explain the way the BBC’s radio, television and online output was organised.

Most interestingly, in both the Ofcom and the BBC cases, the arguments for treating radio as a/the public good were linked to arguments for the programming of more specialist music. For instance, in the last major consultation on radio, Ofcom’s 2004 document, says:

Radio has many of the characteristics of a public good … (and) there could still be an inefficient outcome if the preferences of listeners and those of advertisers were not perfectly aligned and hence the range of programmes offered would be too limited. In this case, there might be a justification for intervening to ensure that a sufficient range of programmes is supplied (47).

Further, it makes the case for radio providing a diversity of specialist music:

The nature of radio arguably makes it better at providing all sorts of music, from classical to folk, from jazz to rock, and at providing opportunities for new talent and for live performances (49).

Likewise, the UK government’s 2006 discussion paper on the future of the BBC identified the provision of “new and specialist music” as one of the ways in which the popular music station Radio 1 should distinguish itself from commercial music radio (DCMS 2006). The station’s ‘service remit’ is distinguished by ‘a mix of daytime programmes with wide appeal and specialist shows in the evening which operate at the forefront of new music’ aimed at 15-29 year olds, and claims ‘at least 40% of the schedule is devoted to specialist music or speech-based programmes’ (BBC 2007). There are similar service remits for the other national music radio stations 1xtra, 2, 3 and 6Music.

The BBC has certainly used the opportunities of new digital channels as a way of extending their provision of specialist music. In a study of the BBC’s output, I identified its digital-only 6Music and 1Xtra stations as offering significant opportunities for specialist music (Wall and Dubber 2009). This is the result of the BBC’s construction of its radio stations through documents which define their service and meet the BBC’s ‘contribution to public value’. So, for instance, 6Music has a remit to ‘reflect the evolution of popular music through extensive use of the BBC archive’ and to ‘reflect the breadth of work produced by iconic artists’ at the same time that it:

focus[es] on new music, particularly that made by UK artists, prioritising less familiar acts who may become enduring icons in the future but who do not enjoy commercial support, thus demonstrating its independence from commercial interests (Trust 2011b).

1Xtra’s service licence defines the station output as ‘contemporary black music aimed at a young audience, concentrating on new black music and new artists, particularly British ones’, while its public value is expressed in terms of its role as ‘a platform for a range of music rarely heard elsewhere’, to ‘support the UK black music industry’ and ‘live performances and club nights’, aiming to ‘identify and support new musical talent – particularly from the UK’ (Trust 2011a).

The idea of the public good has also been strong in the history of US radio, although its significance tends to be obscured by the domination of the commercial sector and network organisation. In early debates about radio, it was strongly related to the idea of cultural uplift and struggles over content in the 1920s (Doerksen 2005), and of course the US public broadcast service is rooted in such ideas (Mitchell 2005). There is an equally important tradition in US radio which bridges the public and community sectors in the diverse range of college radio stations, which since the 1960s have been an important part of specialist music broadcasting in North America. I have previously looked at the sector myself, identifying the importance of New York’s WFUV , based at Fordham University in establishing the Album Adult Alternative format around folk, world music and Americana, and Boston College’s WZBC, which sustains the tradition of freeform music broadcasting and its support to the avant-garde edges of rock music (Wall 2007). Although only accounting for just over 10% of US radio stations (Federal Communications Commission 1999), college-based broadcasters have played a significant part in introducing innovative programming and extending the forms of music available to the listener. This is particularly the case from the mid-1980s, when forms of alternative rock, and particularly British indie rock, were heavily supported by, and became strongly associated with, college broadcasting (Rubin 2011).

To a large extent, though, these examples are a continuation of approaches to specialist music and broadcasting established in the mid- to late-1980s and, as I indicated in the introduction, they now exist in a very different ecology of broadcasting. There are two main dimensions to these changes: firstly, the number of available channels for broadcasting has increased and with this enlargement the relationship between radio and recorded music has altered significantly. Secondly, and more recently, music radio has been challenged by those music radio-like services I took as the starting point for this discussion. In the next two sections I turn to these changes to examine how they have related to this senses of music as a public good and for the public good.

BBC Statements of programming policy 2007/8
BBC (2007) Radio 1 Service Licence. BBC
Bentham, J., J. H. Burns, et al. (1996) An introduction to the principles of morals and legislation.
Commission, F. C. (1999). “Broadcast Station Totals, 1990 – 1999 “, 2007.
DCMS (2006) A public service for all: the BBC in the digital age. D. f. C. M. a. Sport
Doerksen, C. J. (2005) American Babel: rogue radio broadcasters of the jazz age.
Mitchell, J. W. (2005) Listener supported : the culture and history of public radio.
Mosco, V. (1996) The political economy of communication : rethinking and renewal.
OfCom (2004) Radio — Preparing for the future (phase 1 developing a new framework).
Rawls, J. and E. Kelly (2001) Justice as fairness : a restatement.
Rubin, N. (2011) “U.S. College Radio, the ‘New British Invasion,’ and Media Alterity.” The Radio Journal: International Studies in Broadcast & Audio Media 9(2)
Samuelson , P. A. (1954) “The Pure Theory of Public Expenditure.” Review of Economics and Statistics 36(4): 387–389
Trust, B. (2011a) 1Xtra service licence
Trust, B. (2011b) 6 Music service licence
Wall, T. (2007) “Finding an alternative: Music programming in US college radio.” The Radio Journal: International Studies in Broadcast & Audio Media 5(1): 35-54
Wall, T. and A. Dubber (2009) “Specialist music, public service and the BBC in the internet age ” The Radio Journal: International Studies in Broadcast & Audio Media 7(1): 27-48



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