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autumn 2003

Who owns the media (and does it matter?)


by Ger Tillekens
Protests of the past. In post-war Europe, by and large, commercial interests were painstakingly kept outside all matters regarding radio and television. Politicians defined the media as a public affair. Of course, this didn't mean that the public itself was particularly satisfied by what was offered them on the airwaves. On the contrary, the beloved products of the new, American-style popular culture were only distributed in dribs and drabs. Inventive and adventurous entrepreneurs sprang to the occasion, bringing about the advent of offshore radio and, in the Dutch case, even offshore television from an impressive rig on the North Sea (photo right). Dozens of articles in our journal document and analyse the historical events of European offshore radio. You can find them all in our dossier Offshore Radio Stations.

In due time, national governments reacted and conceived laws to abolish offshore radio. Just before Christmas 1966, the British Government published a so-called "White Paper," revealing its plans for the future of broadcasting. Next to the plan to start a National Pop Station (BBC Radio One), they also had the idea to start nine local BBC stations. As a consequence, the introduction of a Marine Offences Bill was announced, meant to end offshore broadcasting off the British Coast. In the Netherlands, things reached the boiling point some years later. Here an act, outlawing offshore radio, came into effect on September 1st, 1974. In reaction to this threat, a real social movement made its presence known in both countries, starting the "Fight for Free Radio." Over the years, several marches and demonstrations were held in London. To keep their beloved radio station "Radio Veronica" in the air, in April 18th, 1973, now thirty years ago, over 150,000 people overflowed the city of The Hague for what — at the time — was the biggest demonstration ever in the Netherlands. You can now read all there is to know about this movement in a recent contribution to this journal, written by Hans Knot (2003).

Protests of the present. In the aftermath of this turbulent episode in media history, one way or another, all European countries made room for commercial broadcasting. Over the last decade the tables even turned around, as governments are lessening all media ownership regulation to such an extent, that the public now seriously begins to doubt the results. The alliance between commercial interests and the public, formed in 1970s, now at last seems to be breaking down. Recently, in the Netherlands, commercial radio frequencies were sold by auction — or rather by beauty contest. The former fans of offshore radio, for instance, were not particularly pleased with the outcome, as the pluralism of the Dutch radio soundscape is quickly giving way to the flatlands of standardized formats (Dubateau and Sixma, 2001) — see our dossier Etherveiling (in Dutch). The offshore radio following are not the only ones to complain the Dutch situation. Reporting on the state of the art of American and Dutch radio stations, the famous deejay Jan Donkers (2003) just published an extensive article, fittingly called "Requiem for Radio."

In the UK, plans are being implemented, even surpassing the Broadcasting Act of 1996. These plans too prove to be contested terrain. Here too, critical voices are making themselves heard, protesting the Government's equation of better and diversified information on the one hand and market liberalisation on the other hand (Philo and Miller, 2000). For the UK case, Gillian Doyle (2002) of the Department of Film and Media Studies, University of Stirling, recently questioned the assumption that choice and diversity can only flourish on the airwaves in a freer market.

  The United States had its fight for low-power radio stations. Again, protests are being raised against the Federal Communications Commission's, now for its agenda for loosening the last significant constraints on media consolidation (McChesney and Nichols, 2003). Some months ago, with tens of thousands of phone calls and hundreds of thousands of emails, advocacy organisations like MoveOn.org, Common Cause, and Free Press succeeded in convincing the Senate to block the FCC's plans. Now, again these organisations are campaigning as the process reaches a make-or-break moment in Congress. In November, the National Conference on Media Reform will constitute a forum to debate US media policymaking. Who owns the media and does it matter? Yes, we think so. By answering this question positively, like Robert McChesney did before in this journal, we intend to keep you informed about what is going on (Barsamian, 2000). In the meantime, we recommend some useful reading material on the past and present fight for free radio.

Some reading material
  • Barsamian, David (2000), "Media matters. An interview with Robert McChesney." In: Soundscapes, Volume 3, May 2000.
  • Donkers, Jan (2003), "Requiem voor de radio." In: M — Het Maandblad van de NRC, November 2003, 28-34.
  • Doyle, Gillian (1997), "From 'pluralism' to 'ownership.' Europe's emergent policy on media concentrations navigates the doldrums." In: Journal of Information, Law and Technology, Volume 3, 1997.
  • Doyle, Gillian (2002), Media ownership. The economics and politics of convergence and concentration in the UK and European media. London: Sage, 2002.
  • Dubateau, Walter, and Onno Sixma (2001), "Dossier etherveiling." In: Soundscapes, Volume 4, June 2001.
  • Knot, Hans (2003), "The fight for free radio. The political activation of offshore radio's fanbase, 1964-1989." In: Soundscapes, Volume 6, October 2003.
  • McChesney, Robert W., and John Nichols (2003), "Up in flames." In: The Nation, October 30, 2003.
  • Philo, Greg, and David Miller (2000), "Cultural compliance and critical media studies." In: Soundscapes, Volume 3, December 2000.
Some relevant web pages
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