Thursday, November 24, 2005

News: Americans Battle over the Berlin Airwaves

An interesting article in Der Spiegel today: Battling for the Airwaves in Berlin

The basic jist of the piece is that since the Second World War the frequency 89.9FM has been owned by the US government. Currently the license is held by Voice of America (VOA), although the majority of the stations output is produced by rock station Star FM, with VOA's contributions limited to hourly news bulletins delivered in a sombre tone guaranteed to cure insomnia.

The license however is up for offer in 2006, and VOA suddenly has competition, from fellow-amis National Public Radio (NPR). Apparently the people with the most influence over VOA are some folks called the Broadcasting Board of Governors. They in turn are responsible for all US government and government sponsored, non-military broadcasting. Meanwhile the NPR, and in particular NPR journalists, are not very popular with the American administration because of a perceived liberal bias.

So there is a battle on for control of the frequency, and it is the Medienanstalt Berlin-Brandenberg that has to make the final decision.

Now what NPR wants to do sounds interesting to me, replacing hourly news bulletins with a really program of imported and Berlin-centred programmes in English. They say they want to the 'American Cultural Voice' in the German capital. More good radio in English should be welcomed, even in these technological times - after all, you can't read blogs or online editions of newspapers whilst I am cooking the dinner, now, can you?

The underlying tone of the article suggests that the fight is more to do with NPR and the fact that the US government do not seem to like them very much. But for this radio listener, another English language station to go alongside the excellent BBC World would be a positive development. Losing VOA as it is now would basically be no loss...is there anyone out there who tunes in for those bulletins? NPR at least seem to be planning something worth listening to. Especially if it included original broadcasts in English with a Berlin theme, something which, understandably, BBC World does not offer.

It would be interesting to hear what others think about this. Is there a need for an English radio station in Berlin? Should it be run by NPR? And can any Americans out there shed any more light on this debate between the NPR and the US Government? The decision will apparently be made in early December, and at the moment I know which outcome I want to see.

Having said all that, I used to work in a kitchen, and Star FM was great for hearing ACDC, T-Rex, and various other Rock Classics whilst you washed a few dishes, so part of me (the lighter in the air part) is just a little torn...

10 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Spiegel article addresses two issues: the licensee for the mentioned frequencsy and the Bush administration's alleged "war" against NPR. As somebody who listens to NPR/PRI several hours every day, I am of the opinion that--
1. NPR programs are of a high intellectual quality
2. NPR programs have a clear and strong left-wing ideological tilt. Specifically they frequently label conservatives as "conservatives" while not labelling liberals as such, making them appear mainstream; use the term "controversial" to identify conservatives or conserv. ideas/proposals; they come out very favorably for international diplomatic instruments like the UN, the ICC and Kyoto; tend to favor foreign critics of the US in Europe and elsewhere; tend to advance economic redistribution ideas such as high taxes, socialized health care; favor left-wing environmental agendas; misunderstanging/spin/truth-bending that favors the left goes unchallenged, while they vigorously challenge any similar tendency from Republicans.
3. Some cultural/entertainment content is apolitical, while others clearly advance left wing cultural agendas.
4. NPR listeners appear to be upper middle class, Democratic-leaning professionals.

Distributing NPR abroad, particularly in a traditionally anti-American cultural environment such as Germany would not increase understanding of the US by foreigners, but rather reinforce their negative views of us.

Solution:
1. The US gov't should establish a communication strategy, tailored to its different audiences. European audiences should hear different messages than Arab audiences yet again differnet than other, no-arab, non-muslim 3rd world countries. RFE and RL were very effective in this regard during the Cold War - adapt their experience. The end of the Cold War does NOT mean that the US can do without a communication strategy.
2. Balance NPR content by allowing more Republican and/or libertarian and/or market-favoring content. Incorporate NPR content in the US communication strategy.
3. The current NPR should not be construed of as adequate representation of US ideals and ideas.

1:45 am  
Blogger P. said...

Thanks for that anon.

8:57 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You're welcome.
There's quite a bit of debate in the US re: NPR and its parent company CPB, though in the cosmic scheme of things this is a side issue.

7:48 am  
Blogger BerlinBear said...

Very interesting comments from anonymous there, and a good post. Great stuff. If anon is still around, I'd be interested to hear whether he thinks that *all* radio stations, or broadcasters, need to be balanced out in the way he is suggesting, or only NPR because it is publicly funded. In other words, hypothetically speaking, if NPR were a private station, would there be no problem with a left-wing bias, just as there appears to be no problem with the right-wing bias of stations like Fox and others? Or should all broadcasters be required to aim for more balance? Alternatively, does anon see any scope for introducing a second publicly funded broadcaster with a more right-wing bent to "balance out" NPR?

As for the choice between NPR and VOA for the licence, if as you say the decision is being made by a German Medienanstalt, I bet I know which way it's going to go. Tip: there is not a V in it.

While were on radio stations, what is the frequency of BBC World?

1:40 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

BerlinBear:
Thank you for your assessment of my post. Regarding your qustions:
"whether he thinks that *all* radio stations, or broadcasters, need to be balanced out in the way he is suggesting, or only NPR because it is publicly funded."

I do NOT believe all stations/bradcasters SHOULD be 'balanced', however we define balance. That would contravene the principle of free speech, and would be impossible to enforce anyways, to the point it would degenerate into bland, token-ridden programming. The commercial market of information in the United States is vigorous and accommodates outlets of various degrees of bias. Arguably the owner/funder has a substantial say in programming, however subtle that influence may apparently be.

NPR is created by and for the urban, left-leaning, upper-middle class intelligentsia, as I expressed in my earlier post, yet it is substantially funded by ALL tax payers.

The problem, as I see it, is that -

1. the state/government should not be in the business of running newspapers, TV stations or radio networks.

2. the middle class or poor people should not subsidize upper class entertainment through its taxes. When it talks to advertisers, NPR is proudly touting the high purchasing power and status of its audience. Presumably this well-heeled audience can afford to pay for its own entertainment. This is in effect a very regressive taxation, and just like tax-payer supported corporate welfare is wrong so is cultural welfare for the upper crust.

3. The political bias on NPR is pronounced, specifically pro-Democratic and anti-Republican. NPR should adhere to its own mandate and reflect all opinion fairly. Or NPR could give up tax-payer funding and retain its current editorial biases.

4. The American culture is mature and stable with vigorous debate on a wide variety of subjects, NPR being just one of many voice. There are many AM talk stations and other media, many of them conservatives of different shades (religious right, pro-business, libertarian, etc). Liberals are free to establish a privately-funded radio network and can have as much bias on it as they wish. Radio America is just such an effort (to set up liberal talk radio), and I not sure how well it is doing but if Radio America is not successful it may partly be because liberals already have a talk radio and it is called NPR.

5. On foreign policy issues again, NPR is quite quick to reflexively accept as revealed truth anti-American positions from abroad, particularly from Europe. This plays well in the American liberal echo chamber, but it surely is not reflective of American popular opinion.

On final point. One of the NPR conceits is that people who are really "smart", educated, sophisticated, think in terms of their biases. They love to quote academics who reinfirce their views. The implied message is that if you don't think like them, it is surely because you are intellectually, emotionally or esthetically defective in some ways. In fact there is quite a bit of deep-thinking about issues facing us ALL in a remarkable network of Conservative think tanks which is virtually ignored on NPR.

Further to your questions:
"if NPR were a private station, would there be no problem with a left-wing bias, just as there appears to be no problem with the right-wing bias of stations like Fox and others?"

I hope the above clarifies it, but if not, YES, it's OK to have left wing bias as long as you're privately funded.

"Alternatively, does anon see any scope for introducing a second publicly funded broadcaster with a more right-wing bent to "balance out" NPR?"

No, one public station is enough. A second station would have the disadvantage of increasing state meddling and spending, and it would further fragment the public arena into seemingly irreconcillable camps.

Re: German Medienanstalt decision, I can't comment on it, lacking familiarity.

It may be that VOA has atrophied, but the point remains that the US needs a coherent and thougt-out communication strategy. We shold not relinquish the media front to our enemies. The American values are appealing the US is basically a decent country and we should not allow our enemies, whether in Europe or elsewhere to define us. This will require a proud, intelligent, and persistent affirmation of our values. NPR will not do that.

8:52 pm  
Blogger P. said...

Wow, some interesting stuff here whilst I have been away.

I think the point that any broatcaster that is funded by the government should aim to remain fair and balanced is fair enough, but what I am interested in is the point at the end of anons last comment which says:

the US needs a coherent and thougt-out communication strategy. We shold not relinquish the media front to our enemies. The American values are appealing the US is basically a decent country and we should not allow our enemies, whether in Europe or elsewhere to define us. This will require a proud, intelligent, and persistent affirmation of our values.

Isn't the decision as to what values are American, and therefore should be promoted on an American station somewhat of a subjective thing, as in: who decides what the 'American values' are that need to be promoted?

It's all very interesting anyway!

8:45 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Isn't the decision as to what values are American, and therefore should be promoted on an American station somewhat of a subjective thing, as in: who decides what the 'American values' are that need to be promoted?"

American values emerge quite clearly from our founding documents, subsequent legal developments, American history and current culture, and most Americans would not have a problem identifying them.

I don't view this as much of a problem. And, while the domestic political landscape is polarized around several cultural and foreign policy issues, there seems to be substantial agreement as to what the core American Values are. Anyways, there is much more in common between Democrats and Republicans than there is, say, between Democrats and Europeans.

It would be thus relatively easy to reach a domestic bipartisan agreement on this. But I suspect the main issue is not this, but rather the RECOGNITION that the US needs to be forward leaning in the media battle ('the battle for hearts and minds'). Democracies are generally slow to move (particularly towards confrontation) but once the decision is made I have no doubt that the US can do it well, because (1) its values represent universal human aspirations, so it has an easy message to sell and (2) it has experience in strategic communication (recall RFE / RL) and commercial communication (advertisement). There will be setbacks of course and cynics will laugh at us (the 'naive' Americans) but if we only have the strength to persist we can do it.

5:30 pm  
Blogger daggi said...

Ok: NPR may not provide a representative view of US politics.

But, hang on a sec, what is on the frequency now? And does that provide such a view?
I think not. And despite this, are the programmes *interesting* (I'm not talking about "87,9 ROCK"/"Star FM", but the VOA broadcasts in the night)? I say no.

4:00 pm  
Blogger P. said...

Well, quite. I wonder if VOA would have been all that arsed about a frequency that they utilise for about half an hour a day (if you add up all the bradcasts) if NPR hadn't come sniffing around it. And you wonder, if they are given a license renewel, if it will be on condition that they actually use if for an English-language station.

I'll still miss the AC/DC though ;-)

4:15 pm  
Blogger daggi said...

Well they do use it for a bit more than half an hour. At night you get "VoA pur". Every sentence begins with "The US minister for..." or "US President...". Almost anyway. The Voice of Russia (693 kHz MW) is almost the same (swap "Bush" for "Putin", you get the picture).

But if I want *amusing* (i.e. quite the opposite of VoA) foreign propaganda (admittedly in German in this case), I like to listen to Deutschlandfunk. I mean, "World Radio Network Deutsch" - from 23.00 on 97,2 MHz. Radio Rumänien, ich liebe euch!

4:24 pm  

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