Friday, November 19, 2010

Commercializing Non-Commercial Radio

November 19, 2010, 5:30 a.m.

IPR's 'Enhanced Underwriting'
(bought to you by FromDC2Iowa.blogspot.com*)

Introduction. Today's blog entry is a reproduction of an article of mine in the December 2010 issue of The Prairie Progressive [P.O. Box 1945, Iowa City IA 52244-1945, $12 annual subscription, no online Web site].

Roughly 40 years ago I predicted and warned that once "non-commercial" broadcasting began taking money from "corporate underwriters" it would follow the same evolutionary path as our early Twentieth Century radio pioneers (who also initially pledged themselves to a public service devoid of commercial influence): from (1) acknowledgments at the beginning and end of the day, to (2) acknowledgments before and after programs, to (3) the mention of a mere product name or two, to (4) mentions during the hour or half-hour, to (5) what we today recognize as "commercials" for products (words, music, pictures, stories, and videos describing the product in ways designed to promote sales).

When The Prairie Progressive asked me to revisit my prediction to see what has happened to Iowa Public Radio, what I discovered to my horror was that the inevitable progression had indeed occurred.
-- N.J.
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The Commercialization of Non-Commercial Radio
The Prairie Progressive
Nicholas Johnson
December 2010, p. 2
(distributed November 17, 2010)

When, and why, did our Iowa universities’ non-commercial, educational radio stations go commercial?
Listen online, become a member, or learn about underwriting opportunities at our Web site, IowaPublicRadio.org.
I feel like a once-proud parent who discovers that her former star student has become a pregnant, alcoholic, drug dealer and college dropout.
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“Proud parent”?

WSUI’s programming has been a significant part of my life since growing up in Iowa City in the 1940s.

As an FCC commissioner, I helped promote the growth of educational, non-commercial public radio and television.

There’s a photo on my office wall of me with President Lyndon Johnson the day he signed the law establishing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, along with one of the pens he used.

I have hosted two seasons of “New Tech Times” for PBS stations, and provided NPR with commentaries, reporting from the Democratic and Republican National Conventions, and on the road from early RAGBRAI rides.
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I have great admiration for, and a good many friends among, those who do the programming and get it on the air for public radio and television. My beef is certainly not with them.

I’m no enemy of public broadcasting.

But the licenses for Iowa Public Radio’s stations were originally issued by the FCC to our State’s universities in accord with Commission regulations still applicable today:
(a) A noncommercial educational FM broadcast station will be licensed only to a nonprofit educational organization . . . for the advancement of an educational program. . . .

(b) Each station may transmit programs directed to specific schools . . . for use in connection with the regular courses . . . and may transmit educational, cultural, and entertainment programs to the public.

(c) [An educational] broadcast station may broadcast programs produced by . . . persons other than the licensee, if no other consideration . . . [is] received by the licensee. . . .

(d) Each station shall furnish a non-profit and noncommercial broadcast service. . . . No promotional announcement on behalf of for profit entities shall be broadcast at any time in exchange for the receipt, in whole or in part, of consideration to the licensee . . .. However, acknowledgements of contributions can be made. The scheduling of any announcements and acknowledgements may not interrupt regular programming.
(emphasis in original; 47 CFR Sec. 73.503).
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Whether the Regents have violated the letter of the law by turning over the universities’ stations to “Iowa Public Radio,” and financing from for-profit corporate advertising, I’ll leave to others. Seemingly, Congress and the FCC have neither noticed nor cared. But the Regents decision has clearly done violence to the spirit of the law creating America’s non-commercial radio alternative.

Law aside, the universities are spending big bucks on technology, personnel and press releases to improve their image, encouraging “faculty engagement” with Iowans, and lobbying for a level of financial support from the Legislature more befitting “State” universities. Their failure to enlist in these endeavors the statewide radio network they already own is a bewildering oversight of monumental consequence. (For more see, http://FromDC2Iowa. com/2008/11/public-radios-self-inflicted-wounds.html.)
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Of course, the money has to come from somewhere. But as I’ve written elsewhere, “Once 'revenue is needed' is the Polestar for a university's financial decisions its moral compass begins to spin as if it was located on the North Pole.”

For our universities to sustain their radio stations financially by abandoning the stations’ very reason for being is like the Viet Nam War rationale: “We had to burn down the village to save it.”

Nothing offers more benefit-cost return on a higher education dollar than using educational radio stations for educational purposes. Properly used, the stations can multiply those Legislative and university dollars many fold. That funding, plus some simple acknowledgments of donors (without “enhanced” advertising), can provide all that’s needed.
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Nicholas Johnson, a former FCC commissioner, teaches at the University of Iowa College of Law and maintains www.nicholasjohnson.org.
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* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source -- even if I have to embed it myself.
-- Nicholas Johnson
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